The Gospels As Liturgy
Properly speaking there is only one true Liturgist: Jesus himself! He is the “liturgist in the Holy Places, in the True tent that the Lord set up, not man.” He is “the High Priest who offers (prosphero) gifts and sacrifices.” (Hebrews 8:1-3)
This means that Jesus himself is the actual liturgist at every Eucharist the church celebrates. That is not to say that our actions are a charade, they are not. The Lord was not speaking to himself when he said, “Do this,” he was speaking to the church. We are the ones who “Do this” by virtue of his command and power; and by virtue of our baptismal and matrimonial union with him. He is the Holy Bridegroom, and we the baptismally cleansed Bride. But the Groom never liturgizes the Father alone. Never apart from, but always and only with, his Bride the church.
The Lord’s life in its entirety is liturgy. To liturgize God means to dispossess oneself of all that he is and has, and to devote it altogether to God for his usage and glory. Jesus “emptied himself!” That is liturgy. In perfect submission to the Father he joyfully gave himself into death, even the death of the cross. That is the supreme liturgy! When we read in Hebrews 12:2ff “For the joy that was set before him he endured the cross, and despised the shame.” What was the content of the joy? Was it our salvation? Yes. But was it also his sheer delight in doing all that God willed him to do? Yes.
It is impossible for sinners to liturgize God. Sinful nature will not play along, indeed will resist with all its might. But the New Nature we attain in baptism will do it. Delights in doing it. Indeed, he can do nothing else. And so by virtue of baptism Christians liturgize the Father in Spirit and Truth. (John 4:24) But how exactly?
It is no mistake that Christian liturgy is an imitation of the Lord’s ministry, which is to say the Lord’s liturgizing of the Father.
Consider the record of the four Gospels, which we might think of as four Christian Liturgies. What do we find? Let’s take the macro view for a moment.
We find the Lord’s baptism recounted in all four.
Next we find the Lord engaged in the Liturgy of the Word, comprised of his teaching and miracles.
Thereafter we find the Liturgy of the Sacrament. Not the memorial of it that the church liturgically celebrates every Sunday. But the sacrifice itself. The death of God’s Lamb that lifts away, takes away and otherwise removes the pall of death that covers the earth.
The church’s liturgy is composed of the same. The baptized assemble. They celebrate the Liturgy of the Word, followed by the Liturgy of the Sacrament, which is no charade, parallel, or mere psychological recollection of the Lord’s sacrificial death and resurrection. But the liturgical re-presentation of it, in which the benefits of the Lord’s death are distributed to all who partake of it.
To reverse the order which I have seen done: sacrament then word; or to celebrate the Liturgy of the Word without the Sacrament; or to give the Sacrament without the Word is to scramble the egg. It is to give less than full and true expression to the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
That said, what are we to make of the four Gospels themselves? Is it possible that they are the church’s earliest liturgies? That utilizing them the story was liturgically re-enacted every Sunday among the baptized; who at the appropriate point of the gospel / liturgy “took bread, broke it and gave eucharistia? This combined with prayer, singing of hymns, preaching, baptism(s) performed, perhaps even the commissioning of missionaries (a la the last chapters of all four gospels in one form or another)?
This macro commends itself to me. It takes the gospels out of the realm of abstract, desultory accounts of the Lord’s life, and gives them form, movement, purpose, and internal logic. My challenge now is to discover whether the micro can bear out the macro. Whether the constituent parts can show this larger picture. I welcome all ideas.