Ecclesiastical Poetry Print
Written by Ben Merkle   
Wednesday, 14 October 2009 20:33

20-3_pointy_hat_readerA robust Trinitarianism combined with a sturdy dose of creatio ex nihilo have given the Church the necessary founda­tion for seeing and interpreting the world as poetry—that is a world full of images signifying the profundities of holiness at every glance. Of course that statement needs a several volume defense to flesh it out. But I need to get somewhere soon, so forgive me for taking a few steps at a time. Roughly, it works like this—in the Triune God, three distinct persons exist in one essence, indwelling and revealing one another perfectly. This Triune God created all that exists. And all that exists reveals the character of this Triune God. Therefore, we should expect to see creation, though not divine itself, declaring the divine character of the one true God. This is true in a focused way when God uses created things, like the sacraments, to specially reveal Himself to us. And it is true in a general way when we see God’s character revealed in the behaviour of animals or the patterns of the weather. From this we find the authority to connect the imagery of creation to the character of God. Our God is a rock, a lion, and a shield.

This makes it possible for mortals such as ourselves to declare God’s praises (as we have been commanded). We speak to Him using the words and images that we find around ourselves in God’s creation. But as we speak using earthly and corruptible images, we find that we are speaking of a divine reality. Creation is full of God’s glory, and divine meaning indwells the imagery of creation. Thus, the Church becomes a poet, finding images in creation that reveal the Triune God to us.

But there is a caution that we must observe. One cannot speak of the Trinity in whatever way one chooses. There are things that are true of the Son that are not true of the Spirit. The Father begat the Son. The Son did not beget the Father. The Son became incarnate and was born of a woman. The Spirit was not born of a woman. The Spirit, proceeding from the Father and the Son, hovered on the face of the waters at creation. The Son and the Father didn’t. The relationships of the three persons of the Trinity, though beyond our comprehension in many ways, are not a whirl that can be expressed however man wants. We must express God as He has revealed himself to us.

20-3_ecclesiastical_poetry_quoteThis is mirrored in creation. Just because all of cre­ation declares the glory of God, this does not mean that any created thing can be enlisted by the Church to image God in whatever way we choose. Creation is not whirl. Though every created thing speaks of God, not everything speaks of God in the same way. Some created things display God’s wrath and others His mercy. A man is born blind and the disciples ask, “who sinned to bring this judgment from God?” But the blindness was there to reveal mercy, not wrath. It is possible to get our symbolism all wrong and muddled. And so if the Church is to be a poet, declaring the nature of God with the symbols of earth, then the Church must have the skill of a poet.

bnr_have_an_enemyAn accomplished poet can find his way from one particular image to almost any number of meanings. John Donne can work his way from the blood-sucking flea to a longing for sexual consummation. But just because the poet can connect his image with a host of different meanings, does not mean that he can connect his image to a meaning in whatever way he sees fit. He must find a natural path, an inherent likeness between his image and his meaning. If he forces the connection, the poetry clangs and clunks. The poet cannot conjure up the meaning when it was never there to start with.

The Church too must take care. Pastors and elders have the task of leading their congregations in giving praise back to God, a praise that is given largely through imag­ery. We sing and pray with poetic images, likening God to countless created things. We walk through a liturgy of worship, which is really a living poem of worship. But as ministers structure their liturgies, they must work as ac­complished poets—men who use images effectively. Far too often, churches who seek to restore the power of liturgy to their worship services end up with awkward, clanking litur­gies because of the mistaken notion that symbolic elements of the liturgy can be assigned to mean whatever the elders have decided. But creation just doesn’t work this way.

Imagine a church, wanting to symbolize the unity of all believers as they came to the Lord’s Supper, instituting a tradition of circling the entire church body in an ecclesiasti­cal conga line for one lap around the sanctuary before the sacrament. No matter how much the elders insisted that the meaning of the ceremony was a display of the unity of the believers (with some overtones of postmil­lennialism suggested by the circling-around-Jericho imagery) the actual significance of the ceremony would be ines­capably ridiculous. The elders can’t declare the meaning into something else, no matter how well-intentioned they are.

Many Reformed churches have very recently moved from worship services that were either very liturgically unaware or even hostile to liturgical worship to worship services that are eager to embrace all sorts of liturgically robust innovations. In doing so, it has become common to see the problem of trying to assign a meaning to a ceremony which that ceremony just can’t support. Attempts to bring a new significance to things like the confession of sin, the giving of the offering, or the serving of the Lord’s Supper are particularly suscep­tible to this mistake.

For instance, I am often told that the significance of a preacher donning a robe is to take away attention from the man and to focus the attention on the office. However, the actual spectacle of the robe, the multiple robe accessories, and the complicated robe-donning ceremonies practiced by some all add up to a whole lot of attention on a particular man. The incongruity of the symbol and the meaning of the symbol don’t disappear merely because the elders have spoken. That’s not to say that the symbol and the meaning could never be brought together. Merely, some congrega­tions need to do a whole lot more work before they can say that their robes mean what they say they mean.

Good poetry understands the relevance of the setting, both in terms of place and time. At one time, looking to the bronze serpent meant trusting in God. At another time, looking to the bronze serpent meant rebellion against God. Wisdom sees the significance of the action in its context. Someone might insist that bowing before the elements of the Lord’s Supper or crossing yourself like a papist doesn’t necessarily imply a road to Rome. But when those elements show up in a twenty-year-old Presbyterian with an identity crisis, there is good reason for the warning bells to start going off.

Growing in maturity as we worship is difficult. Some things may strike us as weird at first and the novelty of the ceremony may distract us from the meaning. But once we grow accustomed to the ceremony, the symbol and the meaning start to gel. So a bit of initial awkwardness in an innovation is not a good enough reason to reject the idea altogether. But we may realize, after several years, that other elements of the liturgy are just plain forced. It takes wisdom, patience, and discretion to train ourselves to have a poet’s ear for liturgy.

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