We are inextricably embedded in this world, in the material world. The wind scrapes our faces as much as the branches of low hanging trees. Words and images ricochet through space and time like chisels swung against marble, chipping, shaping, creating, destroying. We are inescapably embodied. We are bodies that act and react as we are acted upon.
This means that all of life is already a ritual, already sacramental, already profoundly spiritual. This is because God made the world and upholds it by the Word of his power and by the breath of his Spirit. So where will you go from his presence? Will you hide in a cave, at the bottom of the sea, in outer space?
At the center of this magic world is the Magic Word which holds it all together and keeps it from flying back into the nothingness. That Word is incarnate forever as a Man who sits at the right hand of the Father and visits this world constantly through the person of his Spirit, and through the instruments of his Word and sacraments: testing, trying, cleansing, judging, comforting, killing. But this same Word penetrates the whole world; the glory of God fills the universe like an electrical charge.
This means that there is no such thing as "high" liturgy or "low" liturgy — although because of the sin of liturgical pretense, there are certainly those who think there are such things. Life in this universe, seen with true, evangelical faith, is always high liturgy, always bursting with meaning, bursting with the life of the triune God, bursting with power to shape, to break, to mold, to crush, to save. The world is shot through with the glory of God.
So how will we describe the difference between ceremony and informality? Is there no difference between the “high liturgy” of Easter Sunday worship and the “high liturgy” of a walk in the park? How does ceremony and form and awe relate to the rest of our life?
If the world is already in some sense high liturgy, ablaze with the life of the Trinity, then there is nothing but holy ground. The world is a sanctuary. The universe is a pinnacled cathedral. This necessitates the right kind of fear and panic. But because we are creatures made to laugh and play and sleep, we must find some way to pretend that everything is perfectly fine, natural, normal.
Asleep in the Sermon
Some people fall asleep during the sermon, and we make fun of them. But in some sense, we always fall asleep during the sermon; we do that every night. Psalm 19 says that the heavens declare the glory of God, the firmament is constantly preaching about God. So it is not as though we are ever safe. There is no place you can go to get out of the presence of God. The world is charged with the presence of the living God.
So how can we deal with this? How can you make love to your spouse in the presence of God? How can you play here, relax here, live here?
But this is part of the glory of it all. This is the meaning of grace. God made the world for us. He made it so that we would always walk with him, basking in the radiance of his glory, and somehow, at the same time, be perfectly at home with him. It’s sin that distorts this and makes it awkward and unnatural. It’s sin and death that creates the chasm between the awful and the ordinary. And the quest to put these two things back together, to marry heaven and earth is what salvation is all about. It’s about reconciling sinners to the Father, but more than that, the gospel is an invitation to men to open their eyes to see the world as it is.
How do we fall down on our faces and cry "Holy!" and yet sit down in the comfort of the Spirit, believing that we are somehow welcome, somehow we belong, somehow knowing and believing that this is what we were made for? How can we sit back and relax in the garden, knowing all along that it is simultaneously a sanctuary?
The Bible’s word for this is humility. James says, “God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble . . . Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he will lift you up” (James 4:6, 10). The world was created to be both home and sanctuary. The world was created to be both a place that radiates the splendor of the unending glory of God and a place where people could be at home with that glory, a place that would cause people to stop their mouths in shock and wonder, and a place where they might also drift off into a peaceful night’s sleep. The key is humility: the smaller you are, the bigger you are. The tinier and more insignificant you become, the easier it is to see and love both realities.
Ants Before Everest
When we have put on our best clothes, played our best music, and walked with our greatest dignity, we are still only human. We are still just people, just men and women and children, with arms and legs and belly buttons. God loves our worship; God loves our praise — provided we have not made an idol of it. But even at our best we are ants at the foot of Mt. Everest pantomiming how big our God is. We are tiny specks on a roller coaster swinging through the galaxies, surrounded by millions of stars. We are children with tongues stuck in our cheeks scrawling with crayons. We are so small.
And that is really what we are doing in our ceremonies, our liturgies. We are confessing that we are just people, just small, broken human beings. And yet we remember that the glorious, omnipotent God became one of us, stooped down for us, embraced us in His love. We are not merely microscopic organisms pounding the door of some ogre’s castle in hopes of mercy. We are the beloved children of God, made in his image, saved by his grace, washed in our Savior’s blood, redeemed forever and ever. We are small, and yet he has set his love on us. And so we take our smallness, our weakness, we take dust and ashes and, like the little children that we are, we draw on each other.
We play in the dirt that Adam was made out of, and we try to draw the best thing we can imagine. And in this world, the best thing we can imagine is the cross of Jesus, where our weakness was lifted up and transfigured into glory. Where our failures and shame were lifted up and owned by the God of the universe; where our Father claimed us forever and ever as his beloved sons in his Beloved Son. This is folly; this is silly. We are only playing like little children in the dust. But it is this very folly that is the wisdom of God; it is this weakness that is the strength of God.
Our ceremonies and rituals are serious, formal plays where we remember how small we are, how weak we are, and how good our God is. And as we humble ourselves in this, we ought to find both realities growing around us: the haunting glory of the transcendent, numinous God drives us to build cathedrals, to kneel, to prostrate ourselves to the ground. It’s as though we are little children trying to show how big God is: “He’s this big,” we seem to say. And we guard the glory with ceremony and order and decorum, with clashing cymbals, high sounding brass, and the blaring, rumbling, roaring organ swelling high above, and the high, crafted melodies of choirs. But done rightly, received rightly, the ceremony ought not make us wooden or mechanical or awkward.
A “high” ceremony celebrating a Christian marriage rightly drives a couple to a holy bed to make a joyful ruckus, enjoying the earthy, ordinary goodness of sex. Understood rightly, glorious ceremony ought to drive us to the informality of drinks and brats on a smoky summer night, or the goodness of God who gives a man a lovely woman who curls herself into his chest on a couch in front of the television, or childish cheeks smeared with peanut butter and jelly and the wrestle mania that follows with dad and the kids: these moments and hours, these unceremonial “liturgies” of life ought to be enjoyed and celebrated for the grace that they are. They are holy and good and ought to be received as heavenly glories and nothing less than sacramental life for the world.
God Became Dust
God became a man, and embraced this world and made it holy again through his life, death, and resurrection. The incarnation means that the ordinary is lifted up. Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return, but also remember that you in your dust have been lifted up to glory. And because of the goodness of creation, and its goodness restored in the resurrection, it is already lifted up. You are already ascended with Christ. And yet in some way, this ordinary glory (that is now lifted up to the Lord) drives us further up and further in, it still drives us to chase a glory we will never fully realize or comprehend.
Therefore, remember the God who became dust for us and remember how small you are. Remember that we are little kids in the sandbox of God’s universe. And then remember that you have a Father, a loving, faithful Father who has loved you with an everlasting love, and who has sent his only Son to die for you and by his death and resurrection frees you from all your sins. Remember the high calling of low humility. Remember and stand up big and tall, and remember that you are dust: glory dust.