by Peter Leithart
God speaks and light appears. He separates light and darkness, assigns names to each, and judges the whole to be good. Next day, He’s at it again, speaking, separating, assessing, judging. And so it goes throughout the days of creation: With an insistent, incantatory rhythm, God speaks, sees, names, judges. Poetic yes, but more fundamentally, creation unfolds as the enacted poetry of liturgy.
From the first pages of Scripture, before we know much of anything about God, we know He’s a God of repetitive ritual actions and formalized speech. We already know He’s the divine liturgist.
Beginning with Day 3, something else begins to happen. On Day 1, God speaks to nothing, because there is nothing other than God. His speech makes the auditor. Once the seas and land have appeared, though, He addresses them. “Let the earth sprout vegetation” and “Let the waters teem with swarms of living creatures.” And when he calls on earth to sprout, fruit trees and grain plants spring up from the land. He calls on the waters to teem with living souls, and living souls swarm the seas.
God the divine liturgist forms creation as a liturgical partner, a respondent who can speak and act in ecstatic obedience to His creative word.
So the heavens tell the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims His handiwork. Day to day pours speech, and night to night pours out knowledge (Psalm 19). He calls the sun from its tent, and it comes racing across the sky like a mighty man. He speaks thunder, and cedars break, the mountains of Lebanon skip, the wilderness shakes, does calve (Psalm 29). All creation joins in the dialogue, the duet (Psalms 148-150). God speaks, and every creature responds not just with but as a form of praise.
Human beings are made in the image of this God, the God of repetitive, creative speech, the God who creates by ritual and liturgy. Made in His image, we are, whether we want to be or not, liturgical creatures.
We are more homo adorans than homo sapiens. Our most basic orientation comes not from what we think or feel, but from what or whom we worship. Our lives are driven by desires, our desires oriented in turn to an object of ultimate worship. We are created priests to lead a cosmic liturgy, to bring the whole world into the worship of God. Every creature has its own mode of praise, but creation’s praise is fulfilled in us.
No one expressed this more insistently than the eccentric English poet, Christopher Smart. At the beginning of his litany, Jubilate Agno, he calls on people and groups to worship along with an appropriate beast:
Rejoice in God, O ye Tongues; give the glory to the Lord, and the Lamb.
Nations, and languages, and every Creature, in which is the breath of Life.
Let man and beast appear before him, and magnify his name together.
Let Noah and his company approach the throne of Grace, and do homage to the Ark of their Salvation.
Let Abraham present a Ram, and worship the God of his Redemption.
Let Isaac, the Bridegroom, kneel with his Camels, and bless the hope of his pilgrimage.
Let Jacob, and his speckled Drove adore the good Shepherd of Israel.
Let Esau offer a scape Goat for his seed, and rejoice in the blessing of God his father.
Let Nimrod, the mighty hunter, bind a Leopard to the altar, and consecrate his spear to the Lord.
Let Ishmael dedicate a Tyger, and give praise for the liberty, in which the Lord has let him at large.
Let Balaam appear with an Ass, and bless the Lord his people and his creatures for a reward eternal.
Let Anah, the son of Zibion, lead a Mule to the temple, and bless God, who amerces the consolation of the creature for the service of Man.
Let Daniel come forth with a Lion, and praise God with all his might through faith in Christ Jesus.
Let Naphthali with an Hind give glory in the goodly words of Thanksgiving.
Let Aaron, the high priest, sanctify a Bull, and let him go free to the Lord and Giver of Life.
Let the Levites of the Lord take the Beavers of the brook alive into the Ark of the Testimony.
We are liturgical creatures in a broader sense too. Our lives and loves are patterned by repetitive sequences of action. The alarm clock scares us to life each morning at roughly the same time. We go through the same purifications and resurrections (coffee). We work, eat, and relax at specified times, and we retire at roughly the same time every night. Our years also pulse with periods of intense work punctuated by periods of relaxation, rest, and celebration. If we keep the liturgical calendar, the incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of the Son imprints itself on our time-keeping.
Without this sort of ritualization and habitual behavior, life would be overburdened with decisions: When shall I get up, how shall I prepare for the day, what route shall I take to work, when shall I eat? Acting out the liturgies of daily life, we can live without standing outside ourselves, spectators of our own existence.
We might think that this ritualization and un- self-consciousness inhibits freedom. We might think that it makes us less than fully human. The truth is nearer the opposite.
Jeremy Linn excepted, no basketball played calculates the thrust and arc of his free throw. Players practice by repeating the same movements again and again: Three dribbles, crouch and stare at the basket, bend the knees, flick and follow-through. How you do it matters less than the fact that it’s the same every time. The more automatic the free throw, the freer it is. Ritualized practice inscribes knowledge of shooting into the body.
A good pianist doesn’t decide where her fingers go as she plays. Stop to think about what you’re playing, and the terror of forgetfulness settles in. As long as the hours and hours of practice have trained the fingers to go where they should, as long as the pianist can rely on finger memory, she’s fine. Musical memory is ritualized into the fingers.
This self-forgetfulness is important at the very highest levels of human action as well. In Letters To Malcolm, CS Lewis famously challenged the lust for liturgical novelty. The best worship is the worship we don’t notice, because if we don’t notice it, we also don’t notice ourselves: “Novelty, simply as such, can have only an entertainment value. And they don’t go to church to be entertained. They go to use the service, or, if you prefer, to enact it. Every service is a structure of acts and words through which we receive a sacrament, or repent, or supplicate, or adore. And it enables us to do these things best — if you like, it ‘works’ best — when, through long familiarity, we don’t have to think about it. As long as you notice, and have to count, the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance. A good shoe is a shoe you don’t notice. Good reading becomes possible when you need not consciously think about eyes, or light, or print, or spelling. The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God. But every novelty prevents this. It fixes our attention on the service itself; and thinking about the worship is a different thing from worshipping.” Worship is for worshiping God. Only Pharisees delight in watching themselves worship God.
We are freest – most lordly and Lordlike and human – when we are least self-conscious, when our actions are most liturgical and ritualized. We are most worshipful when we mimic the divine Liturgist who liturgized us into being.