Much of today’s Christian worship is based on traditions that have developed over the centuries. The authors of Pagan Christianity? have documented the pagan origins of many of those traditions, and then conclude that Christians really need to go all the way back to the example of the first century church in order to worship “correctly”. I’m not so sure about that.
Regardless of the origins of our Christian traditions, I believe that most of them have an underlying value that is still meaningful today. My attention was drawn to this topic last Sunday, when I had opportunity to watch the televised Palm Sunday service at Saints Simon and Jude Cathedral in Phoenix, Arizona. The service was a high Mass (more formal than the normal weekly Mass), and was led by Bishop Olmsted of the Phoenix Diocese. The Mass included corporate prayer, the reading of scripture, singing, communion, and an excellent homily (sermon) on the last words that Jesus spoke from the cross.
There were also numerous activities that would seem odd, maybe even distracting, to a worshipper who is unfamiliar with the Catholic Mass. The Mass has changed some in recent years, but still follows the same basic forms and traditions of Christian worship that go back to the middle ages. Some of those practices are intended to demonstrate reverance for Christ and the Bible and for Holy Communion. Others are included because they are remembrances of Christ and his sacrifice. We need to remember that for many centuries the typical worshipper was uneducated and illiterate. The liturgy that was repeated every Sunday was a form of instruction in the basics of the Christian faith. It can still be a good reminder for us today.
As with any traditions that are practiced repeatedly, worship traditions can become so familiar and automatic that they lose their spiritual value in our lives. Then we may be tempted to abandon them as worthless. We may even go so far as to declare them “pagan” and offensive. But if we really pay attention, and think “why am I doing this?” at each point in the church service, we may find a new appreciation for some Christian traditions that have been meaningful and instructive for many generations of believers.
For those of you who don’t normally attend a church with a formal liturgical worship tradition, I recommend that you visit one soon. I think it will enrich your appreciation of the “church of our fathers”.