Pre-Evangelization and Liturgy. Yes.

Does it matter that liturgy is something bigger than us? Something God gives, not something we make or create?

In his 2010 post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Verbum Domini, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI emphasized the relationship between human history and Christianity:

“The historical fact is a constitutive dimension of the Christian faith.

The history of salvation is not mythology, but a true history, and it should thus be studied with the methods of serious historical research” (§32).

Now in this context, he’s talking about the historicity of Scripture. That the rooted-ness, the fact that every Biblical text has a real human author in an actual historical situation isn’t of passing interest to disciples of Jesus, but somehow a constitutive dimension.

Since our knowledge of ancient Israel’s qahal as a foundation for Christian worship is so deeply rooted in the Old Testament, I think the idea of historical fact as a dimension of the faith applies liturgically as well. And more clear, vibrant experiential knowledge of this can serve as pre-evangelization.

How can this be pre-evangelization?

I think the unquestioned dominance of the “New Evangelical Liturgy” in non-Catholic churches has peaked. It’s still (and will continue to be) widespread, but among non-denominational, post-denominational, and emergent churches I notice greater interest in Christian liturgy. For example, a preaching series on the origins of Christian ritual and encouragement to pray the Divine Office at Mars Hill in Grandville, Michigan. Or, Willow Creek’s “The Practice” for exploring the historic practices of Christianity. Or, the Ancient-Future church network. Or this observation:

“one of the consistent themes of millennial evangelical social criticism tends to be a more skeptical attitude toward American materialism, or at least certain types of American materialism. Alongside that trend, the emergence of churches like Redeemer Presbyterian in Manhattan as well as the somewhat surprising resilience of many orthodox Anglican congregations suggest that the future of American Christianity likely is a more high church, liturgically informed type of Christianity–but such a Christianity is not essentially incompatible with Protestantism.” (Jake Meador, MereOrthodoxy)
Individuals in our culture do still have a human need to connect to history, to a way of worshiping and belonging to community that is not of our own modern creation. Think of the societal fervor surrounding Pope Francis, or the fact that individuals still flock to Ash Wednesday services (even though this is not an obligation in any Christian tradition I know of)–why? A basic human need for embodied belonging. A need so common that even though many write-off “liturgy” as “stiff” or “boring,” the desire remains within.
We pre-evangelize when we cultivate conditions to connect this basic human need to God. There’s a human need for rituals that connect us in bodily form to human history. The historicity of liturgy is not something to avoid or hide in embarrassment, but to embrace. History is powerful, and when we live in such a way that our witness speaks to this connection, we offer others the opportunity to recognize their desire for the transcendent.
In this light, Benedict’s assertion that “historical fact is a constitutive dimension of the Christian faith” is then not a crutch or constraint, but yet another means of pre-evangelization through our own joyful witness. But here lies the challenge: this historical reality remains merely prose in theological books or passages in the Catechism unless it’s brought to life by us as living stones, part of the Temple of God filled with the Holy Spirit. Historicity doesn’t automatically create liturgical belonging–we have a critical role to play. Ask, how can I share liturgy? The answer might surprise you!
Colleen Vermeulen

Colleen Vermeulen

Colleen Reiss Vermeulen, M.Div., M.N.A., blogs, ministers in parish life and lay/deacon formation, and serves as a U.S. Army Reserve officer. She and her husband, Luke, have been married since 2011 and live in Ypsilanti, MI with their two young sons.

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