The Liturgy as Literature

© Cliff Richardson

I’ve been studying storytelling. Not just the typical three-act structure, but also the plot points, pinch points, climactic moment, the dark night of the soul and temporary triumph. Good stories hit all the major points. It keeps you engaged and leaves you with a sense of fulfillment, or challenge.

Recently, sitting in church, I thought of the liturgy as a story. It hits a lot of the major beats, although not necessarily in the order you expect.

The liturgy starts in the normal world. We arrive at the church in different ways; as a family, a couple, alone, with kids, without kids, carrying our struggles from yesterday, or worrying about the struggles of tomorrow. We find our seat in the pews and say hello to friends and family with smiles, hugs, maybe tears. We sit down and listen to the prelude music, take a breath, say a prayer. For now, for the next hour, this is what it’s supposed to be about.

The inciting incident is the first sign of trouble. It can be obvious like an action/adventure story, or subtle like a drama. In church, we call it the announcements. Mixed in with the thank you’s and congratulations are the requests for help. It tugs on you and wants you to rethink your schedule for the coming days, or weeks. The moment passes with the words, “Now let’s stand and worship our God.”

Worship starts with a song of praise. All the voices of the congregation joined by an organist, or a band, come together to awkwardly, but joyfully sing the praises of Christ, who has saved us from sin, death and hell. Our God is indeed great and amazing. If enough voices join in we are compelled to sing louder and really give it a go. Sometimes singing a whole song, whether it’s an old hymn or a contemporary piece, can feel like a real accomplishment.

The song ends and we are abruptly brought to the beginning of the end. Any good story doesn’t linger too long in the normal world. There is a dramatic shift. A point where the character is faced with a decision to either face their problem, at the risk of having their normal world destroyed. Or turn away from their problem, at the risk of hoping it will just go away. But we know, we always know, that the problem never just goes away.

The pastor stands at the front and invokes the standard of our worship, “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Our worship is not to be taken lightly. The congregation responds, “Amen.”

The problem presents itself. The pastor says, quoting 1 John 1:8, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” Our normal world has been infiltrated with a stark reality; I am a sinner.

The congregation responds, quoting 1 John 1:9, “But if we confess our sins, God, who is faithful and just, will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

There is a moment for reflection. A chance to consider the consequences of agreeing with that verse. I don’t want to admit I’m a sinner, but if I don’t I’m living a lie. God is faithful, though. He wants to forgive me. He’s already fulfilled the Law that condemns me. He’s already sacrificed himself and risen again, defeating death and bringing eternal life. But I have to admit I’m a sinner and that means I’m indebted to Him.

The weight of my sin crushes me and time is up. The pastor continues, “Let us then confess our sins to God our Father.

The congregation responds and I am compelled to read the words every time and keep them from becoming vain repetition.

Most merciful God, we confess that we are by nature sinful and unclean. We have sinned against you in thought, word and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone. We have not loved You with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We justly deserve Your present and eternal punishment. For the sake of Your Son, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us. Forgive us, renew us, and lead us, so that we may delight in Your will and walk in Your ways to the glory of Your holy name. Amen.”

It’s done. I am committed to my fate. My life is in the hands of the Almighty.

Unlike most stories this would be a dramatic point that we would have no answer to and we’d spend the rest of the story wondering how this will be resolved. Not so with the liturgy. We have our answer.

The pastor responds and announces God’s judgment immediately.

Almighty God in His mercy has given His Son to die for you and for His sake forgives all your sins. As a called and ordained servant of Christ, and by His authority, I therefore forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

And we all reply, “Amen.”

It feels like the end of the story, but in our worship of Christ, forgiveness is only the beginning.

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