The Liturgies of America

"Public liturgy is particularly difficult for a nation that has slowly changed the notion of “secular” into the absence of religion, or anything readily identified as such. The emotional needs of the nation have not changed – only its way of expressing them. 

What has replaced the church liturgy in contemporary, secular society? 

Originally appeared at: Orthodox Christianity

 I will be far from the first to observe that football in America has a sort of religious cast. If “liturgy” means a “work of the people,” then football is its clearest manifestation in our culture. When a team wins, there is a deep, abiding sense within its fans that “we won.” The constant use of “we” through public discussions indicates that we experience this sport as something in which we “participate” – it is an act of communion. To some degree, it is the most profound act of communion within our culture.

Though it is true that far more people attend Church than attend football games, it is nonetheless true that football draws a wider, more “ecumenical” audience. Basketball lost a hero a week or so ago with the sudden death of Kobe Bryant in a helicopter accident. A nation needs public liturgies in which to honor the dead and to mourn. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Superbowl, though dedicated to a different sport, saw fit to make just such a remembrance.

The ancient meaning of “liturgy” referred to a public work. For example, in ancient Athens, during times of war, it was not unusual for the rich to donate the cost of building a warship. Such a donation was known as a “liturgy,” a “public work,” or, “a work for the people.” There were other such donations. The expenses for a large public event such as the feasting and the sacrifices that accompanied a major celebration would be a “liturgy.” It is rather interesting that this word came to be the one used by the Church to designate its public worship services.

The role played by public ceremonies is among the oldest aspects of human civilization. It has varied from culture to culture and from culture-god to culture-god. Maintaining the assurance of divine blessing was but one concern. The other, more to my point, was the public participation in the mystery of communal existence. Individualism is a very modern thing. Most societies have been marked far more by their sense of participation in the whole. I think that modern individualism is a bit of a thin veneer that masks a much deeper, darker participation in society as a whole. For, in truth, we cannot survive as mere individuals: we are sustained by our place within a larger scheme.

What do people gain from their place within a larger scheme? We derive purpose, meaning (for a time), sometimes forgiveness and atonement. Note that I am discussing all of these things in terms of anthropology. Any religion, any public liturgy, can do these things. If they do not, we find new ones. If I make a distinction regarding the liturgies of the Christian Church (such as those of the Orthodox) it is that they represent a public work that is rooted and grounded in the work of Christ as received in Holy Tradition. As such, they are not examples of our modern cultural liturgies.

Many people will be unaware that the American Congress used to call for national days of fasting during times of crisis. In March of 1863, the Congress and the President called on the nation to pray and do acts of “humiliation” (fasting), in repentance for our sins, with a view that the civil war taking place was, perhaps, a just punishment for the nation’s sins. Times have changed.

I had a recent conversation with a friend about the impossibility of national repentance in America, for the simple reason that there is no way to publicly liturgize such a thing. In truth, our liturgies have become strange agglomerations of prayer/patriotism/sports. This year’s Superbowl had a moment (ever so brief) of silence for Kobe Bryant and the other victims of his helicopter crash. It had an intense period of patriotism where both America the Beautiful and the National Anthem were sung, complete with presentation of the flag and a military flyover.

I have served military funerals now and again, always with a sense of awkwardness. There is nothing lacking in the funeral rites of the Orthodox Church (nor were there any particular lacunae in the Anglican funerals I served for 20 years before my conversion). The addition of military ritual, which is exceedingly stiff, and modeled, quite likely, on those of the Masons, always seemed rather jarring. It’s just awkward. America is a country, not a belief.

Public liturgy is particularly difficult for a nation that has slowly changed the notion of “secular” into the absence of religion, or anything readily identified as such. The emotional needs of the nation have not changed – only its way of expressing them.

The Superbowl generally represents the largest television audience for a single event in the year. Many games have some of the same liturgical elements: patriotism with a dash of remembrance. Oddly church services in some circles have added the same elements. When the 4th of July falls on a Sunday, many churches have services in which strictly patriotic hymns are sung. A Baptist Church in a nearby town has 2nd Amendment rallies (bring your guns).

I have twice lived in towns where the local college team won a national championship. It is difficult to describe the euphoria that settles in following such an achievement. Locally, Tennessee last won a national championship in 1998 and has fallen on hard times. The magic of the autumn Saturday liturgies has begun to wane with attendance in decline as well. America (and her liturgies) wants winners.

In truth, patriotic narratives are simply too thin to sustain human existence.

The gradual rise in what would become modernity occurred at the same time as the rise of the nation state. Over time, the nation state has been the focus of modernity’s hopes. If we harness our collective will (we imagine), we can build a better world. As such, patriotism has become the religious expression of modernity (complete with the occasional refrain of “God shed His grace on Thee”). Prayers for the state (as well as strongly-held political opinions) seem to expect that the state will be the focus and engine of worldly well-being. Providence has been delegated to the democratic process. We only want the future we choose.

Of course, all of this is inadequate. Vote as we will, the future will not be controlled. We cannot vote to make ourselves good (much less better). Without a virtuous community, the future will stand little chance of being virtuous. With great frustration we will greet a future that bears a remarkable resemblance to ourselves (the truth of ourselves). Without such a future, there would be little basis for self-knowledge and repentance.

America does not have a liturgy of repentance. The days of fasting once enjoined upon us are a thing of the past. Even then, for all the prayers and fasting of Lincoln’s republic, no particular liturgy ever marked the end of slavery, much less sought to repent for its evils. To this day, many seek to justify its history.

When the Soviet Union fell, within a few short years, Russians began to create memorials and liturgies for the atrocities of the Soviet Union. In Moscow, at the killing fields of Butovo, a Church now stands as a memorial to its victims. Public liturgies are held there on a regular basis. It is one of many such memorials across the country.

Our public narrative is very thin. The Church historian, Martin Marty, once said that American Christianity was “2,000 miles wide and 2 inches deep.” When our Christian theology mimics the triumphant patriotism of our culture, nothing deeper ever begins. Depth comes with suffering. Suffering creates sorrow, and sorrow, of a godly sort, produces repentance.

We are bad at enough stuff and have a history sufficiently marked with sorrow to create fertile ground for repentance. It lacks the humility to greet it.

It is ever so much more than a game.

Fr. Stephen Freeman

Glory to God for All Things


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