Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Getting to the heart of the matter: differences between eastern and western liturgies

When Christian liturgies are compared, a fundamental division is east and west.

An oversimplified description is that while eastern liturgies tend to go round and round, to repeat things over and over, western liturgies tend to be lean, to go directly to the point, to be cut and dried. Western churches often think of this as a virtue, feeling that western liturgies get to the heart of the matter quickly and succinctly.

I've argued elsewhere that this may not be as good as some think it is. To me the question comes down to how humans think: are we direct-thinking, logical creatures or are we perhaps more roundabout than we sometimes realize?

The biblical revelation is an example. There's no reason God couldn't have given us a fairly succinct statement of what He had to tell us. A perhaps expanded version of the the Commandments, the Creed, and one book giving in detail the life of Christ.

But He didn't. Instead the Bible can be maddeningly roundabout, going off on tangents, telling us things that seem perplexingly irrelevant and not providing information (such as details on the earthly life of Christ) that believers have wondered about for centuries.

And maybe this is the way we really think (as opposed to our rationalist vision of how our minds (not to mention our spirits) operate.

I think that the problem for western liturgies (especially in church bodies such Lutheran where the liturgy is not fixed) is that those who think themselves rational will often want to lop off even things "because they're not really necessary." Even when things aren't lopped off, there seems to be an obsession with not repeating. So a church which starts a service with a Baptism -- with a confession of the Creed -- will take pains to not use the Creed again later in the Service when it would normally occur. As if somehow our brains might explode if we "had to" confess our faith twice in an hour or so!

Is "necessity" a good criteria for the liturgy? The analogy is whether it's "necessary" to tell my wife that I love her. Of course, I could reason, she "knows" that I love her. But that's just not the way humans operate. Why do we feel like it's how we operate in the Mass?

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