Danger: Liturgy Ahead

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I had a friend write me recently in great anguish about some wild liturgical abuses going on at his parish, his pastor’s proclivity to make the Eucharist into an ego fest, and what he saw as a total lack of reverence before, during and after Mass.

I want to write more about that at another time, but it reminded me of a conversation I had with a Coptic (Egyptian) Christian who was a grad student at Florida State University. We talked at length about the possibility of reunion between his Church and the Roman Catholic Church, and discussed the various doctrinal differences and how they might be overcome. But he said something at the end that I found most fascinating, and relevant to my friend’s email. He essentially argued that the primary obstacle for many Copts to reunion from the Coptic side is the threat of the “banalization” of the Liturgy. Simply put, he believed Western Christians have largely lost a sense of the holy, of the transcendent mystery of the God, and have lost the “Godward” orientation of Liturgy.

Let me share his core argument (in my words, of course, summarizing what I recall to be his major points):

What we Copts find most frightening about reunion is not the resolution of our theological differences, but the liturgical culture Catholics tend to bring with them from the West. For us, the divine Liturgy is an act of God-facing awe and holy fear filled with love and reverence for God’s deep and unutterable mystery. Worship is sobered by holy fear, yet joyful with love. And for us the priest who celebrates is not a personality or creative dramatist but an icon and symbol of Christ who willingly loses himself in the cloud of ritual movements and fixed liturgical language. The Liturgy is not a show or celebration of ourselves but an appearing of the presence of the coming Kingdom; the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Our church is full of the blessed Seraphim and Cherubim and all the powers of heaven who come to lift us up with Christ into the heavens where the Father lives in inaccessible Light. And as we dare to draw near to his Holy Gifts [the Eucharist], we dare do so only because we have been invited by God, though we do so in holy fear knowing we must still dress aright with good works, heart-rending repentance for purified hearts, even as we confess the Gifts are the Flesh and Blood of God. Communion is fraught with danger even as it is with joy and life, as we commune with the all-pure, all-holy, all-true, all-all God. My fear if we have reunion? It’s that the seeming loss of liturgical awe and reverence in your church, the loss of a sense of what is really and truly happening in divine Liturgy, will dilute the Coptic faith that has been penned in martyr’s blood, and will lure Copts into the seduction of a westernized God — a God whom we are desirous to tame and domesticate and house in a safe and gated community where He obeys our soft and individualistic mores and values; and resists troubling our idolatrous consciences with those fiery darts of the Gospel of the Kingdom that sting us to the heart.

If you experience Coptic liturgical worship, every one of his words about their liturgical culture will ring true. Just peek at this:


My Coptic conversationalist, during our lively exchange, quoted from an Orthodox liturgical text, and said, “If we can feel safe that our Catholic sister Churches will bring this attitude toward worship to us, we are ready to declare reunion.” Here’s the text:

Let all mortal flesh be silent, and stand with fear and trembling, and meditate on nothing earthly within itself;

For the King of kings and Lord of lords, Christ our God, comes forward to be sacrificed, and to be given for food to the faithful; and the bands of angels go before Him with every power and dominion, the many-eyed cherubim, and the six-winged seraphim, covering their faces, and crying aloud the hymn, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.

And I will leave you today with Cynthia Clawson’s haunting rendering of this text:

4 comments on “Danger: Liturgy Ahead

  1. […] going on at his parish, his pastor’s proclivity to make the Eucharist into an ego fest, …read more Source: Neal Obstat Theological […]

  2. Tim says:

    I once heard that the Coptic Patriarch agreed that most theological differences with the Catholic Church either have or could be overcome. However, he did not see how the Coptic Church could reunite with the Catholic Church where the people “rarely pray and never fast.” Ouch! I guess the truth really does hurt sometime!

  3. […] watching this video I was reminded of an article I read on the blog “Neal Obstat” where the author recounted a conversation he had with a member of the Coptic Church. Rather […]

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