Relax! Jesus is here!

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…

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4 Responses to Relax! Jesus is here!

  1. J. Random Hermeneut says:

    That is a fantastic excerpt – great articulation of the “Who is driving the verbs” question we ask about the Divine Service. These days there’s only one knot of angst I personally have difficulty untying regarding the liturgy, and it orbits, from a pastoral perspective (i.e. the vantage point of the celebrant and why he is meant to be there in the first place), precisely around the issue of the erosion of “casual certainty” within the congregation on account of the “casual” or even “complete lack of” proclamation of the sacramental presence of Christ in liturgical expression. Quite a different issue, I think, from anxiety about “doing it right”. More a matter of “is it even being communicated?” Is this perhaps a different anxiety, or is it the same, or just a different vantage point?

  2. John H says:

    I know what you mean. I’ve been batting round thoughts for a blog post on the general topic of “what we say/think” vs “what we actually do” – the gap between the narratives we tell ourselves about ourselves and our externally-observable behaviour, between abstract doctrine and concrete practice – for a few weeks. At this rate you’re going to force me to actually write the blasted thing. 😉

    But one concrete example that springs to mind: I remember being impressed at an Anglo-Catholic church a few years ago by the careful post-distribution ritual of cleaning the vessels. Really communicated a belief that this wasn’t just bread crumbs and wine dregs that were being dealt with.

    OTOH, part of me reflects that God first put his body and blood into the world in what might be regarded as a slightly careless manner, knowing what the outcome would be, so perhaps we shouldn’t get too panic-stricken about these questions today…

  3. J. Random Hermeneut says:

    That’s a really good einerseits/andererseits example. Hey. Blog about that one.

    Incidentally, while I’m still very much a stickler for “finishing one’s meal” I’m far more relaxed, perhaps even ambivalent, about the external display of the act of that last little morsel getting consumed. (As discreetly and nonchalantly as is possible in my case, nowadays.) This is because, after some soul-searching, it was very hard for me to separate two conflicting motivations, one being concerned with a sort of “What this is” proclamation; the other being a “See, look mum, I’ve finished all my tea, so where’s my pudding?” immaturity about wanting to be perceived and recognised (if only in my own mind and own inner-theological conversation) as “doing it right”.

    I mean, let’s be frank. What confessional Lutheran pastor, isn’t endowed with at least a spot of narcissistic personality disorder? 🙂

    So as a celebrant, liturgist, preacher, etc. the difficult art is how to make as big as possible the proclamation and as little as possible the personality proclaiming it. How to get up front and simultaneously get out of the way. Very, very difficult. Even within the parameters of the liturgy. I can’t even imagine how it’s possibly done outside of those parameters. Though I’m increasingly becoming aware that sometimes liturgical leaders can and do subvert and function within the liturgy for narcissistic reasons, and this can have veiled ill effects on congregational well-being. This situation is much, much more apt to occur in a context where liturgical practice has quite deliberately been conflated with an external need (through socially-constructed group pressure within the guild, as it were) to self-validate oneself as “orthodox”. It is least likely to happen where liturgical expression is the unquestioned essence of congregation’s religious self-identity (i.e. RC and Orthodox Christianity). And this… leads to an even bigger and knottier question… for another day.

  4. J. Random Hermeneut says:

    But enough about me. How about that Alison, quite a chap, eh? … 😉

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