By Grayson P. Walker
It’s a cliché, but it’s true. Mountaintop moments — like Moses’ on Sinai (Ex. 31:18), or Elijah’s on Horeb (1 Kgs. 19:8) — energize and sustain us for the long haul. Which means that even though most of life is spent plodding along, doing ordinary things like washing dishes, cranking out work, or discipling (and disciplining) children, mountaintop moments matter. Liturgically-inclined Christians understand this. Though we know life in Christ is lived day by day, we participate in the liturgy because it takes us, as it were, to the mountaintop, where we stand in the very presence of our thrice-holy God through Christ Jesus (Is. 6:3), in whom we “have access in one Spirit to the Father” (Eph. 2:18).
In the liturgy, we rehearse the story of God’s covenant faithfulness to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and to you and me. While participation in the liturgy of the Church is not a panacea, nor a guarantee of what James K. A. Smith describes as “formation in the virtues or the acquisition of the fruits of the Spirit,” corporate worship around word and table is nevertheless the primary place we meet God and become rooted in the true story of the whole world.
Although each Lord’s Day independently energizes us for the ordinary days in between, the liturgical year reminds us that there are some Sundays, and weekdays, and indeed whole seasons that the Church has long set aside as holy days, or holidays. Ash Wednesday — which has once more come and gone — is one such day, marking the beginning of Lent, the 40-day period leading up to the Lord’s resurrection at Easter.
But millions of Christians don’t worship in a liturgical tradition and are not otherwise attuned to the liturgical year, which means Ash Wednesday, and sometimes even the season of Lent itself, remains out of sight, out of mind — at least until coworkers start talking about what they’re “giving up” for Lent, or show up at work with ashes imposed on their foreheads. But that’s not the way it’s supposed to be.
After all, regular participation in biblically informed rituals and habits — from routine Sunday worship to midweek services marking the beginnings of another season on the church calendar — should be part of the warp and woof of every Christian’s life. Christians should not, as the writer to the Hebrews makes clear, neglect to meet together (Heb. 10:25). Why? Because as Smith reminds us, “we’re liturgical creatures who are always already being shaped by some liturgies.” If the gospel of our Lord isn’t forming us, something else is.
Despite the centrality of the liturgy to our life in Christ, we mustn’t forget that participation in the liturgy of the Church is not itself the pathway to fellowship with God. Tish Harrison Warren puts it this way: “rituals and habits may form us as an alternative people marked by the love and new life of Jesus, [but] they are not what make us beloved.” Indeed, Christ alone is the atoning sacrifice for our sins (1 John 2:2). It is the Beloved’s work, and not our own, that makes us children of God and secures the eternal inheritance that is assuredly ours (Eph. 1:6, 11; 1 John 3:1-2).
Be that as it may, grace, as Dallas Willard observed, is only opposed to earning, not to effort (see Phil. 3:12). So we continue to gather together each week to do the work of the people of God, not because gathering together saves us, but rather because, to borrow again from Warren, it trains us to wait, to hope, to slow down, to prepare, and to celebrate. This weekly work is especially important now, during the season of Lent, when we’re meant — through prayer, penitence, and fasting — to slow down and to prepare (as catechumens once did) for the Lord’s resurrection at Easter.
Given the recent invasion of Ukraine, to say nothing of the two years’ devastation wrought by COVID-19 (and our responses to it), it may seem absurd to make the case that what we need most right now is to meet together on Sundays. But alas, we are homo oblivio. Even as world events and the testimony of our hearts confirm otherwise, we continue to put our hope in science and technology, thinking it is they — rather than the God who turns kings’ hearts wherever he wills — that will usher in shalom (Ps. 21:1). But they won’t.
The last, best hope for humanity is not Meta. Nor is it even national, political, or individual freedom. No, the last, best hope for man is a new nature formed and informed “in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Col. 3:10; cf. John 3:3), accomplished through “a web of Christian disciplines and practices that make up a Christian way of life seven days a week.”
Whatever you do this Lenten season, don’t neglect to meet together. Corporate worship around word and table is the place where God reminds us of the glorious gospel of grace; namely: that he, in the fullness of time, saw fit to right Adam’s wrong and to restore us to friendship with him through the covenant faithfulness of the God-Man, Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:18-19; Gal. 4:4-5). Thanks be to God for that.
Grayson P. Walker (MA, Knox Theological Seminary; JD, University of Oklahoma College of Law) is deputy general counsel to Oklahoma Governor J. Kevin Stitt, to whom Grayson provides strategic counsel on legal, policy, and ethical matters. He previously clerked on the Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals. Before law school, Grayson worked as a middle-school teacher, campus minister, and research assistant in the Texas House of Representatives. He worships at King’s Cross Church in Oklahoma City.