A Tradition Worth Returning To

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Icon Depicting Constantine at the First Council of Nicea. Source: Wikimedia Commons

One Sunday morning, a few weeks into my semester in Italy, my roommates and I accidentally stumbled into a Greek Orthodox mass. It was beautiful and mysterious, but we hardly participated. We were much too focused on observing, trying to figure out what was going on, and praying that we didn’t accidentally commit some sort of international/interdenominational faux pas. But after the priest gave his homily, something deeply familiar happened. The congregation stood up and said something in unison, in Italian. It was not the words that were familiar, but the rhythm with which they were said, the pace, the pauses, the melodic quality to them. It was the Nicene Creed, which was, of course, soon followed by communion. For these moments, I was no longer a foreigner in this church and in this country, but at home with the Church all over the world reciting those same words, and the historical Church that has preceded her.

That was the day that I knew I loved liturgy.

I’m writing about this now because I’m one of many millennials who has proudly returned to this kind of worship, and I’d like to think about why this is. This is also in response to a couple of articles that were published last week which speculate about this alleged trend.

The American Conservative’s Gracy Olmstead suggests that millennials are making their way back to the high church because – in true millennial fashion – we’re looking for meaning. Quoting Jesse Cone, a PCA-turned-Anglican high school English teacher, she writes that  “the single greatest threat to our generation…is the deprivation of meaning in our lives. In the liturgical space, everything becomes meaningful. In the offering up of the bread and wine, we see the offering up of the wheat and grain and fruits of the earth, and God gives them back in a sanctified form. We’re so thirsty for meaning that goes deeper, that can speak to our entire lives, hearts, and wallets, that we’re really thirsty to be attached to the earth and to each other and to God.”

In a soft rebuttal, J. David Nolan, a blogger over at First Thoughts, argues that this turn toward liturgy has less to do about meaning and experience, and more to do with the fact that liturgy is grounded in doctrine and history – it is, for all intents and purposes, objective. He says that “Higher liturgy emphasizes objectivity in worship and thus a more objective connection with God. Subjective experiences of spiritual union with God are wonderful gifts, but for most of us not the stuff of everyday life. In the context of a liturgical service, Christians offer praise and worship regardless of their current psychological state. Liturgy both takes the pressure off the moment and supplies concrete means to pursue that perfect union with God over time.”

The real question here isn’t the sociological “why are millennials returning to liturgy?” but the far more important, “why is liturgy worth returning to, now and always?” Olmstead and Nolan are both helpful in answering this, and I’d like to reconcile their points.

Another anecdote: I came to faith in a context that tended to devalue the material and emphasize the individual’s religious experience. Looking back, I recall many times where I was pretty uncomfortable with this. Why do the things of this world, and my work in it, ultimately not matter? Why am I, and the people who care about me, so concerned about what’s going on in my heart? This approach to the Christian story has compelled a lot of people whom I deeply respect; I find it lacking. Thus, my return to the liturgical tradition.

The greatness of liturgy is that, through tradition and grace, it instills meaning into things while remaining largely objective. Put differently, liturgy makes things meaningful, regardless of how I feel about it – in the liturgical service, my personal feelings are inconsequential. The liturgical service is still beautiful and honoring to God even when I’m bored, stressed, tired, or just apathetic. That said, because of the meaning that it gives to all things – the bread, the wine, the words, the hands that I shake after I’ve been pardoned of my sins – I have a lot of trouble remaining bored, stressed, tired, and apathetic for very long. The pressure to feel anything in particular is gone, but in my experience, I usually do feel something.

Parts of my entitled, individualistic generation are being compelled by that which makes it less about us (or, not at all about us), and more about God and the things He calls good. Likewise, in a culture that has deprived many things of their ultimate meaning and value, some of us are seeking to restore this meaning and value to our material world. And regardless of the reason, this is a very, very good thing.

[Image: George Cooke. “Interior of St. Peter’s in Rome.” United States, 1847.]