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Stranger in a Strange Land
When I told a friend that my contribution to a project on the "cultural crisis" in contemporary worship would focus on the recovery of the Eucharist, he was very enthusiastic. It was a good question, he thought: "why the contemporary worship movement seems to devalue sacramental participation." I didn't have a chance to tell him that wasn't my question. Yes, one way to begin getting a handle on the worship crisis is to interpret our confusion and conflict in terms of the tension between "traditional" and "contemporary." But tradition, as the contributors to that invaluable volume, The Invention of Tradition, have shown, is a very slippery notion, and the facile distinction between the "traditional" and the "contemporary" often obscures more than it reveals.
An alternative way (an alternative, not the alternative) of framing talk about worship today asks us to start with the presence of God among his people. In Deuteronomy 12, the Lord instructs his people to break down the altars where "the nations" serve their gods,
burn their sacred poles with fire, and hew down the idols of their gods … You shall not worship the Lord your God in such ways. But you shall seek the place that the Lord your God will choose out of all your tribes as his habitation to put his name there. You shall go there, bringing there your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and your donations, your votive gifts, your freewill offerings, and the firstlings of your herds and flocks. And you shall eat there in the presence of the Lord your God, you and your households together, rejoicing in all the undertakings in which the Lord your God has blessed you.
Here is the essence of worship. God is always present, but in worship he calls us to a heightened collective awareness and acknowledgment of his presence. "In the late second century," writes Gordon Lathrop in Holy People: A Liturgical Ecclesiology,
Irenaeus of Lyons, perhaps the first, great, post-biblical theologian of the church, created ...