CategoryWorship

“Just a Symbol”?

Engin_Akyurt / Pixabay

Is today (January 28, 2016) closer to

A) January 27, 2016

or

B) January 28, 1986?

The obvious answer is A), because we almost always think of time as sequential, but for the friends and family of the five astronauts and two payload specialists that died in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster on this date in 1986, the answer would likely be B).   Lamb

In 1986, I watched the launch of the Challenger with my grade eight and nine students.  We watched for a few hours after as we tried to understand how this could have happened.  This was a meaningful event.  Chronologically, yesterday is closer to today, but if meaning is our standard, at least for some people, today is closer to this date 30 years ago than was yesterday.

The Non-sequential Nature of Time

The non-sequential nature of time is something we usually ignore, but it can add significant depth and experience to our lives if we are more aware of it.  I’ll attempt to illustrate this using the elements of Tim Keller’s sermon called “The Story of the Lamb.”

The story of the Lamb is actually the story of three lambs.

The Story of the Second Lamb

The story of the second lamb cam be found in the book of Exodus.  The Israelites are slaves in Egypt and as prologue to releasing his people, God has sent nine plagues upon the land of Egypt.  The tenth plague will be the death of the first born.  In  Exodus 12:23 we an amazing twist in time:

When the LORD goes through the land to strike down the Egyptians, he will see the blood on the top and sides of the door frame and will pass over that doorway, and he will not permit the destroyer to enter your houses and strike you down.

The Destroyer.  This destroyer does not bring regular destruction, but End-Times destruction–Revelation 9:11:

And they had a king over them, which is the angel of the bottomless pit, whose name in the Hebrew tongue is Abaddon, but in the Greek tongue hath his name Apollyon.

Lamb1This Destroyer, then, who visits death upon all the first born of Egypt is the bringer of End-of Time Judgement, long before the end of time.  Time is bent when the Destroyer of the future kills all the first born in ancient Egypt who were unprotected by the blood of the second lamb.

Importantly, the tenth plague is not just the death of the first born Egyptians, but the first born of any who live in Egypt–this includes the Hebrews.  The Hebrews are not exempt from Eternal Destruction–they are not saved by their own merit, nor by God’s ignoring of their sin.  They are saved by the blood of the lamb.  The Passover is the central act of Jewish worship – and it commemorates salvation by “the bloody death of a helpless victim”–the second lamb.

The Story of the First Lamb

The first lamb is found in Genesis 22.  God says to Abraham,

Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you. (22:2)

In this culture, the first born already belonged to God; he has a claim on the first born as representative of the family(Exodus 22, Numbers 3 and 8)–the firstborn’s life is forfeit.

You must give me the firstborn of your sons. Do the same with your cattle and your sheep. Let them stay with their mothers for seven days, but give them to me on the eighth day. (Exodus 22:29-30)

The first born, as the representative of the family, bore the guilt of the entire family.  Abraham, Keller says, believed that God was just calling in the debt.  Although the father would have been distressed by the loss of his son, sacrificing Isaac was also an act of giving God his due.  Just before Abraham can carry out the sacrifice, angel of the Lord calls out “Stop.”  Then this:

Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram[a] caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son.  (Genesis 22:13)

God himself provided the alternate sacrifice.  The ram functions as a substitute for the first born who is himself a representative of Abraham’s family.

Back to the Second Lamb

Lamb2Back to the second lamb. In the Exodus story, the Hebrews understood that God  was, again, making a claims the on the debt of the first born, and that he, again, provided an alternate.  When they heard God’s instructions for the first Passover, they would likely make the connection to the first lamb–the ram caught in the thicket which took the place of Isaac on the alter.  The story of the second lamb doesn’t mean what it means without the story of the first lamb.  Again, time is bent back upon itself.

The deliverance from Egypt wasn’t the solution to all their problems–they still lived in a spiritual bondage, and consequently were subject to Final Judgement. To solve this problem, they need another lamb–Lamb 3, Jesus.  John the Baptist called him “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”

The Story of the Third Lamb

Lamb4The night Jesus was arrested, he ate the Passover meal with his disciples.  This night, the lamb wasn’t on the table, but at the table.  The first two lambs were just animals.  The ram that took Isaac’s place on the alter did not actually save the boy.  Nor did the Passover lambs save the Hebrews by their death.  The first two lambs only pointed to the third.  The third lamb was the God’s Son, but this time no one yelled, “Stop.” Like the first two lambs, his death was in the stead of those who deserved it.  Unlike the first two lambs, Jesus is the ultimate lamb that provides the ultimate salvation.

Communion

The central act of Christian worship, Communion, commemorates “the bloody death of an innocent victim.”  The bread and the wine in which Christians partake an obedient response to Jesus command to “do this in remembrance of me.”  In it we remember Jesus, the Lamb of God, giving his life for us, once and for all, on the cross.

Christians have different views as to what happens at communion, from the supernatural event of transubstantiation to it being a completely human act or “just a symbol.”  If we think of time only as sequence, the Passover and the Last Supper happened many, many centuries ago. If they are relevant at all, they are relevant only as a symbol. If you understand that time has loops, it becomes far more than a mere symbol.

Lamb5When we partake of the bread and wine, we are not simply remembering an event that took place 2000 years ago.  We are standing at the convergence of several events, profound events each involving a substitutionary death.

Jesus died once for all, but as time bends, we stand before him as he says the words “this is my body, for you.”  Communion is not merely a memorial because Jesus is active as he offers us the bread and wine–his body, not many times, but once.  But with the bending of time, he’s offering it now.  One death and resurrection, but a continual offering of Grace.

As you partake of the Communion meal this weekend,  think about the nearness in time, higher time, of the ram that took Isaac’s place on the alter, the Passover lambs that died in order to protect the Hebrews from an early encounter with The Destroyer of The End-Times.  Think especially about the Lamb of God–the ultimate lamb–who died to save us from the ultimate consequences of our sin and who is right now seated on the throne of heaven.  Think about standing at the convergence of all the Communion meals being celebrated across space and time as Jesus offers us the salvation he paid for with his life.

If you manage to catch just a glimpse of any of this, you will not be able to think of The Lord’s Supper as “just a symbol.”

“Just a Symbol?”–Communion in a Cathedral

St. Augustin, Vienna

The Hapsburgs were christened, married and buried at St. Augustine in Vienna.  This cathedral has seen a lot of pageantry and ceremony and the mass still reflects a polish and flair consistent with this history.  I particularly noticed this in the treatment of the elements of the Eucharist.

In all Catholic services, the host is treated with a great deal of respect.  When congregants enter the door, they make the sign of the cross, and they genuflect before entering the pew.  Both these actions are directed toward the host.  After the Eucharist, the priest is careful that to gather and consume all possible remnants of the host.  Water is swirled in each vessel and consumed so even the residue is collected.   The plate and cup are then wiped with a cloth and this is folded and wrapped in an embroidered envelope and later taken to, what I imagine, is a ceremonial cleansing.  This reverence for the host is seen in every Catholic service. In the mass at St. Augustine, all this was done with particular precision and flourish.

This elaborate treatment of the Communion elements is easily explained.  Catholics believe in transubstantiation, that is, the conversion of the communion elements into the body and blood of Christ.   They are treated accordingly–even the last crumb.

Because, in Protestant services, the elements are not seen as the actual body and blood of Christ, the sacrament has become less profound a ritual than is the Catholic Eucharist.   In Protestant churches, Communion is a solemn event, but while I watched the celebration of the Eucharist at St. Augustine, I wondered if we could do more, especially in the language we use in our Communion services, to increase the significance and mystery of this sacrament.

Just a Symbol

I’ve had Communion in a variety of Protestant churches across North America.  On more than one occasion, I have heard the officiating pastor explain that the bread and wine are “just a symbol” of the body and blood of Christ.

I do not contest that Communion is symbolic, but the use of the word “just” indicates that the speaker has fallen into a very limited understanding of both symbol and sacrament: a Modern understanding.

I do not contest that Communion is symbolic, but the use of the word 'just' indicates that we have fallen into a very limited understanding of both symbol and sacrament: a Modern understanding.Click To Tweet

Modern Categories are not Biblical Categories

The Modern mind is a rationalistic mind, and as such, it likes to establish clear categorical boundaries–nature/grace, faith/reason, spiritual/physical.  To say that communion is “just a symbol” is to accept these modern dichotomies and suggests the physical elements in sacrament merely point to an intangible spiritual reality.

The Christian ought to understand the limitations of this approach and see the fundamental unity in all of reality.  The ultimate expression of this unity is the Incarnation; when the Word became flesh, “the eternal entered the temporal, but without ceasing to be eternal” (Zimmerman 265).

God’s redemptive work in the death and resurrection of Jesus occurs in both the physical and the spiritual realm.  The sacrament by which we remember this work is not simply a physical symbol, but also profound and literal spiritual event, for here, divine Grace intersects with nature, and the rational human agent partakes in faith and so is brought up to the divine.  And through it all, God remains fully God.

Does that sound a little confusing?  It ought to be.  While I watched the Eucharist at St. Augustine, I was impressed with the mystery and wonder of it all.  I thought I could bring some of this wonder to my own participation of the Lord’s Supper.

The Communion meal is symbolic but it is not “just a symbol.”  And although we don’t believe that it changes into the body of Christ, the bread is far more than just bread.

And should never be referred to as “gluten-free Rice Chex” (even if that’s exactly what it is).

The Dom in Salzburg — It’s not about ME

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Attending mass in the Salzburg Cathedral was the most memorable experience of a wonderful trip to Europe this summer.  The building’s interior was beautifully ornate, but not gaudy.  The music included organ, orchestra and, I think, more than one choir.  Add to that, the awareness that this was the very church at which Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was christened.   In his role as Court Organist, Mozart composed much of his sacred music almost exclusively for this Cathedral.

I had two very strong impressions during this mass.

It’s Not About Me

The first impression–It’s not about me.

The organ, choirs, and orchestra are placed behind and far above the congregation.  This placement reinforces the idea that I am not the primary audience for their performance–I can’t even see them.

Back home, it’s not about me either, but the praise band occupies the same place as a performance band, so I have to remember that they aren’t there to please me.  It doesn’t matter if I don’t like the style in which one of the songs was presented.  Nor does it matter that I don’t “feel” like praising God today; he’s worthy of my praise regardless of how I feel.  The sermon’s relevance to me is not the standard by which it ought to be judged. Everything in any church service is directed toward the worship of the triune God.  But back home, sometimes I forget.

Three Impressions

First Impression: In Salzburg Cathedral, my experience wasn’t the priority.

The whole thing was in German, and I don’t speak German.  I ended up thinking about how the audience of every service, is God; he speaks German.  He also “speaks” Evangelical, and Reformed and Catholic.  I imagined how rich God’s experience of worship must be when he is being praised simultaneously in every language and cultural expression that there is and ever was.

Then there were the pews.  Even in this most beautiful of churches, the uniquely carved benches are not comfortable.  The seat is set at 90 degrees to the back, which has a board running across it as an elbow rest for the kneeler behind me.  This makes it very uncomfortable to lean back.  These seats were definitely not designed with my comfort in mind.  It certainly is not about me.

second impression: all the elements represent the very best of human ability

I’m talking about architecture, craftsmanship, beauty, painting, and music.  Every sense encounters something incredible. Enough said.

Third impression

If I combine my first two impressions . . .

All that excellence which I so enjoyed doesn’t exist for me at all.  All that I see, hear and enjoy are pure grace.

The grace I receive through the worship service in my home church is no less than that with which I was overwhelmed that Sunday morning in Salzburg; the only difference was my awareness of it.

Praise Songs: Pronouns

Fotorech / Pixabay

Should we ban the use of he pronouns “you,” “I” and “me” in our praise and worship songs?

Of course not, but the songs we sing on Sunday are full of them and they shouldn’t be.  They reveal how we understand God and others and the world, but they also reinforce the self-centeredness that comes so naturally to us.  Rather than lead me into a reality where I am not the centre of the universe, many songs carry the same message as television commercials.

“You”

Let’s start with “you.”   There is no inherent problem with this word.  But there is something we’ve lost along with the word “Thou.”  It’s not really the word “you” that’s the issue, but a tone of familiarity and intimacy that I am wondering about.  I think some of our songs consistently reflect an intimacy which might be going a little too far down the continuum, toward the “Jesus is my girlfriend” extreme.  On one level, the intimacy is appropriate because the Holy Spirit is within us.  But we can’t lose the idea that we are also addressing the almighty creator and sustainer of the universe.

“I” and “Me”

As for “I” and “me”–one of the main idols in our culture is individualism and we are hardly aware of our ritualized devotion to this false god.

In the West, everything comes to us through the filter of individualism.  It would be a very good idea for every Christian to become very intimate friends with someone from a non-individualistic culture (traditional African and Middle Eastern perhaps) and listen very carefully to how they understand the Bible.

I am barely aware of my own devotion to the god of individualism.  But I catch a glimpse of it in many praise and worship songs.

I am barely aware of my own devotion to the god of individualism. But I catch a glimpse of it in many praise and worship songs.Click To Tweet

Worship should be God-focused, so it follows that worship songs ought to be focused on God and not on me.  So then the question is, how often ought we see the pronouns “me” and “I” in song set?   Notice that even if I am singing a line that says, “I love Jesus,” I am still singing about myself, or more accurately, my feelings.

Keith & Kristyn Getty & Stuart Townend wrote a song called “Come People of the Risen King” which is sung as a people of God, rather than a person of God.

Come, people of the Risen King,

Who delight to bring Him praise;

Come all and tune your hearts to sing

To the Morning Star of grace.

From the shifting shadows of the earth

We will lift our eyes to Him,

Where steady arms of mercy reach

To gather children in.

 REFRAIN

Rejoice, Rejoice! Let every tongue rejoice!

One heart, one voice; O Church of Christ, rejoice!

Come, those whose joy is morning sun,

And those weeping through the night;

Come, those who tell of battles won,

And those struggling in the fight.

For His perfect love will never change,

And His mercies never cease,

But follow us through all our days

With the certain hope of peace.

Come, young and old from every land –

Men and women of the faith;

Come, those with full or empty hands –

Find the riches of His grace.

Over all the world, His people sing –

Shore to shore we hear them call

The Truth that cries through every age:

“Our God is all in all”!

This is not to say that there is no room for a song that communicates a personal response to God.  Of course, there is.  Nor am I suggesting that we can’t sing songs that use the words “me” or “I.”

I am suggesting that when we are selecting songs to sing in collective worship, we need to primarily focus on God and not ourselves or our feelings toward him.  This shift in focus will be reflected in the pronouns.

In my series The Poetry of Worship, offer ways we can improve the lyrics of the praise and worship songs we sing.  More importantly, I explain why we ought to.

Praise Songs and Higher Times

Praise 1

Why Men have Stopped Singing in Church

In a recent post, David Murrow explains “[w]hy men have stopped singing in church.”  He says that there are some positives in the switch from hymnal to the projection of lyrics onto a screen in front of the sanctuary, but he concludes that “the negatives are huge.”

One of these negatives is that “[s]ongs get switched out so frequently that it’s impossible to learn them. People can’t sing songs they’ve never heard. And with no musical notes to follow, how is a person supposed to pick up the tune?”

[W]e went from 250 songs everyone knows to 250,000+ songs nobody knows (Murrow).

 I experienced some frustration this past Easter for this very reason.  The songs that were chosen for the Easter service were all appropriate thematically, but almost all were new to me.  I’m pretty quick to catch onto songs, so it wasn’t really an issue of not being able to sing them.   I am obviously not the same as the men who don’t sing in the Murrow post.  But there was something else that I realized that we’ve lost since hymnals have become obsolete.

 And it has to do with the way we view time.

Higher Time

 In our culture, we understand time to be exclusively chronological.  So much so that many who are reading this are saying, “Well, what the heck else would time be?”  Chronological time, or “secular” time, is the idea that one thing happens after another.  There is no meaning behind this ordering of events–it is ordinary time.

 Higher time (kairos) is infused with meaning.  It doesn’t replace ordinary time but complements it.

Higher times “gather and re-order secular time” (Taylor 55).  If you think of chronological time as a long rope, higher time takes that rope and ties it in a knot so places on the rope that are usually further apart, are now touching.  These “kairotic knots” (54) meaningfully reorder time.

 So, your birthday 2013 is closer in kairos time to your birthday in 2012, than it is to the other days that lie between them.   This is because your birthdays all share the same meaning and the ordering of kairos time is one of meaning.

 In the secular world, this is the only sort of time there is and I think we lose something if we view time as a mere sequence and neglect this other way of experiencing higher time.

Praise and Worship Singing and Higher Times

 What does this have to do with praise and worship songs?  I think the songs we sing in church can go a long way in helping us to experience higher time.

 Back when we sang from a hymnal, we’d sing the same songs every Easter  In this way, the songs helped to connect all this Easter with every Easter I was alive for.  But all these Easters were connected to every Easter all the way back to the first when Jesus asked Mary Magdalene, ” Who were you seeking?.”

 The principle is the same with Christmas. We also sang the same songs at every funeral, and after the offerings were collected.  The songs linked these events to each other in higher time.

 The modern, secular view of reality is an impoverished view.   This view of reality ought to be countered at every point if people are going to experience a life of fullness available in Christ.  Certainly, the songs that we sing can help us to experience time as meaningful, but all aspects of communal worship can be looked at.

Perhaps a little more attention given to the traditional church calendar is worth a look.

In my series The Poetry of Worship, offer ways we can improve the lyrics of the praise and worship songs we sing.  More importantly, I explain why we ought to.

 

 

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