Imagine a dense forest separating two cities. In order to engage in commerce between these cities, merchants must pass through the forest. For the earliest of these merchants, this was a very difficult task, wrought with many mistakes and casualties. Eventually, though, over time and with experience, the merchants discovered the safest, quickest route through the forest. Once they did, they began to carefully mark the path so that they would remember the best way to go. Even then, each of these early journeys required careful attention to the markers so that they would not stray from the best way. Over time, however, their regular trips along that same route began to form a much more visible path to the degree that years later merchants hardly pay attention; they doze peacefully as their horses casually follow the heavily trod road. Here now is a well-worn path cut through the wood upon which travelers mindlessly pass from one city to the other. This path may seem mundane, but in reality it is embedded with values such as desire for safety, protection from the dangers of the forest, and conviction that this is the quickest way through. The snoozing merchants do not give thought to these values any longer, but the values are there nonetheless, and whether they know it or not, their journey has been shaped by those values. Those values are, as it were, worn into the shape of the path itself.
This fictional story represents the liturgical story of the Christian faith, well illustrating the dynamic, formative nature of the relationship between religion and liturgy. Christian religion is like a path through the forest that was formed long ago, but along which God’s people travel through life every day. Sometimes this formation occurs consciously, but most of the time the journey of God’s people has been shaped by values imbedded in their liturgies in ways Christian pilgrims rarely recognize.
It is for the purpose of understanding the formative relationship between religion and liturgy that studying the liturgical story of Christian religion is so critical. But to explain why this is so important, I need to further clarify what I mean by both religion and liturgy. We’ll turn to that next week.