Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Repertoire of Rites, part 1

Senn, Frank C. Christian Liturgy: Catholic and Evangelical. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997.

This is a book that I read in part for a course at The American Lutheran Theological Seminary. I’m also using it to help my daughter learn to write chapter summaries for her own edification and instruction. So probably these posts will at least partially be hers rather than mine. The chapters tend to be long and involved, so we might put up several posts about one chapter.

Chapter 1 “The Repertoire of Rites” pp. 3-29

Senn begins this chapter by defining liturgy as the rites Christians engage in during public assemblies. While in recent generations Western culture has defined rituals as “obsessive and regressive” (p. 3), they have historically been recognized as perfectly healthy and normal, even essential to an ordered culture. We develop as humans in a community as we engage in those rituals, whether they are carrying a flag at the front of a parade, taking off hats to bow to the king, or striking our hands together to show approval of someone’s performance.

On page 5 Senn turns his attention to symbols. Many ritual behaviors involve symbols. For instance, in the United States the symbolic octagon which is red in color has a clear meaning, even if the word STOP is not painted on it in white. Red is considered a symbolic color of danger in this culture The Christian life is full of symbolic language. God gives us signs which expand the meaning of what we do. For instance, breaking of bread together in communion shows us not only that God’s nourishment is present for us, but that it is present through the breaking of Jesus’ body.

Sometimes modern Western people find symbolic meaning difficult to understand. This explains, at least in part, why some have so much difficulty with historic liturgy. We understand signs which are relatively clear, but when there is additional symbolic meaning, expanding the signs, we find ourselves confused. Yet the sacred life is full of symbols of inclusion and exclusion, light and dark, feasting and fasting, joy and sorrow. Learning to understand these layers of symbolic meaning will only make our participation in worship more fulfilling.

I observe again that these chapters are long and full of important ideas. I’ll leave us mid-chapter on page 9. We’ll pick up where Senn begins to talk about rites of passage.

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