Do We Have It All Wrong? by Ray Temmerman

This article was originally published in the July 28, 2022, edition of La Croix International. We are grateful to the author and editors for permission to reprint it here—Ed.

Liturgy is that dynamic activity by which we express who God is for us, and form and express who we are before God.

What is the structure of our liturgy?

In simple terms, we begin our Eucharistic (thanksgiving) liturgy with a gathering hymn.

Then we immediately launch into a confession of our sinfulness and request for forgiveness, a liturgical cleansing of ourselves before hearing and receiving the scriptures being proclaimed.

And finally, the bread of the word having been broken, and our statement of faith made, we enter into that component of the liturgy which is the divine meal.

It’s all so familiar. But is it right and good? Or is it shame-inducing, shame-producing, reducing the effectiveness of the scriptures, and making us less able to enter into true thanksgiving around a meal with Christ as the center?

Saint Ignatius of Loyola insisted on the first principle and foundation, namely that (in colloquial terms) God created the world and us, and God doesn’t create junk.

As part of creation, we are a thing of beauty to God, inherently good, no matter how much we may fall short of that goodness in what we think, say or do—or fail to think, say, do.

Ignatius was also clear that, if we skipped that first principle and foundation, anything else would only go downhill.

And yet, in our liturgies . . .

Christians are good at inducing shame

We have a gathering hymn determined by people who may or may not understand its central importance, the need for it to not only gather us, but to point to the greatness and ultimate goodness found in God’s love and mercy.

The selected hymn may (if we are truly fortunate) do that—but it may as readily leave us with nothing by which to know God’s love, the context for our repentance.

Then, without further ado, we launch into a statement of our sinfulness and corresponding request for forgiveness—and somehow think that will cleanse us, make us good and pure and able to hear the words of scripture, take them to heart.

After all, it seems, we can’t receive them if we are not first in a state of grace.

The result, I suggest, is to induce guilt and shame, not for what we have done or failed to do, but for what and who we are, sinners to the core. And God knows, we Christians are good at inducing shame.

We know that stories, well told, can induce self-recognition. They can also induce us to recognize what we have done or failed to do which reduces our human authenticity, what we can and should do, or choose not to do, if we are to become more authentically who we are.

Yet we demonstrate, in our liturgies, that we believe we must be pure and good before we hear the scriptural stories, before we can allow them to work their effects in us. And somehow we seem to think that is right and proper, and effective in producing good and holy people.

I would argue that this process is anything but the case.

The need to imbue in us a sense of goodness

Might there be a better liturgical form? I suggest we need not make much change in what we do, but we could change the process, the steps in which we do it.

And we might, for good measure, begin with a clear first principle and foundation, a base from which everything else flows and to which everything takes us.

What would happen if we began, not with our sinfulness and a recognition of original sin, but with God’s goodness and a recognition of original grace, original blessing?

I propose that we might begin, Sunday by Sunday, with alternating readings from the ancient text we know as the Old Testament, focusing on Genesis 1:1–2:3 and Genesis 2:4–25.

They are different creation stories, but both tell of a God of immense love, creating great beauty which is seen as very good, all creation living in harmony.

Doubtless people would tire of the constant reading of those passages, yet I suggest the texts would begin to imbue in us a sense of the essential goodness and beauty which is our created being, regardless of how much we may choose to live in accordance with, or contrary to, that goodness.

Our goodness before God would be our core reality, our actions being expressions of our decisions, but unable to destroy our essential goodness.

Then, instead of focusing on our wrongful decisions, we could open our hearts and minds to the stories of God’s people—people who, like us, have done marvelous things or greatly sinned—and often both within the same person.

Having come to those stories without any prejudging/prejudice of what we are or what we have done, we could receive them, allow them to work on and in us, revealing our thoughts, words and actions to ourselves.

We could then hear the bread of the word broken for us in the homily, the scriptures explained and expanded on, so their effect could be even greater, be it affirming us in goodness or calling us to recognition and repentance of our sinfulness.

Only after all of this would we proceed to the confession.

Finally, coming together for the shared meal

Having been reminded of God’s infinite goodness as evidenced in creation, having heard the stories of scripture which speak of the relationship between the human and the divine, and having recognized and repented of our sinfulness (but not of who we are, for we are a beautiful creation of God), we would finally come together to give thanks to God for all we have been given—for God’s call to us to become more authentically human—and be able sit down with one another to receive Him in a shared meal.

The Anglican Church in Canada, in their Book of Alternative Services, has moved the confession to after the homily and before the Creed. I suggest this is the right place for it, where it comes after having heard and been impacted by the words of scripture.

But I would begin first with the first words of the ancient texts, statements which give us the very first principle and foundation for all life, namely that God created, and what was created was not only good, but very good.

With that becoming firmly etched in our hearts, we may yet begin to recognize, not the shame of being something less than we might be but which we can’t change, and instead the shame of having made decisions which are contrary to who and what we are as God’s creation, decisions we can change in order to become more fully ourselves, creations of great goodness and beauty.

Perhaps then the false shame which so many people bear would be reduced and God’s love could have a greater chance of being demonstrated in the world for the good of all God’s creation. ♦

Ray Temmerman (Catholic), with his wife Fenella (Anglican), administers the website of the Interchurch Families International Network. A former Board member of the Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church (ARCC), he continues to conduct research into the place of interchurch families and the gift they bring to their churches and the Church.

Image: Detail from The Creation of the World, Armenian manuscript of New Julfa Bible, 1645. Collection of Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem. Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
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