Worship: Eucharist, Liturgy, and Work

Rev Peter Stuart was Anglican Chaplain at Victoria University of Wellington (1965-71), where he also tutored in History, and was Canon Theologian for the Anglican Diocese of Wellington (1988-2004). He has two Masters of Arts, one in History from the University of New Zealand (New Zealand’s sole university from 1874-1961) and the other in Theology from the University of Oxford. Peter has a particular interest in the theology of work and was a convenor of “Ministry@Work,” a network of parishes which sought to help Christians live out their faith in the workplace. You can read some of his writing on Christianity in the workplace here. Peter and his wife Julia are members of the Parish of Eastbourne.

How are we to link our “work” with our “worship”? How are we to understand their relationship and act on it? Perhaps it is by probing our understanding of both words so that in Christ they emerge as virtual synonyms. Our daily work is part of our worship; our worship is part of our work. 

Two starting points for this Anglican pilgrim have been the “simple” Roman Catholic exhortation, “Pray the Mass, Live the Mass,” and my experience as a young research student. The first sums up my discovery that the Eucharist was and is a framework that can hold together our whole human life and give it meaning, direction, and grace-filled resource. The second was an intensely focussed period of research for a thesis, combined of necessity with a night shift to earn money for overseas study.  In that period of my life, every minute was precious and programmed. And it was held together night and day by “free” prayer at home and formal prayer (some short monastic “offices”) on public transport; but especially important was the discipline of beginning and ending each day by offering my work and myself to God. 

In the Church, “liturgy” has meant “the ergon (work) of the laos (whole people of God).” And the daily services or offices in monasteries and other communities have been referred to as “Opus Dei,” the Work of God. If you want to see work and worship brought together and raised into their proper synergy, spend some time in a monastery where all “mundane” work is laid down immediately the monastery bell sounds (seven or more times a day), summoning monastics to the Work of God in the chapel. Work is oriented to its final end.

Gum trees sway in the Wind
a leggy chorus line
waving leafy pom-poms
to entertain the angels

Hares dart into view
inspect the paddocks
encoding their reports
in vertical stops and sudden dashes

Monks appear then disappear
dance gently with the tasks of another day
within rhythms of bells and buzzers
and spiral into timeless Mystery

Morning comes and evening comes
when monks pause and hares doze
and angels watch while Christ sings on
and dances with the trees

for the Ancient of Days

Peter Stuart ©2014

Complementing this is the ancient teaching of Augustine of Hippo and so many others that has flowed down through the centuries: “A true sacrifice is every work which is performed in order that in holy fellowship we may cleave to God.” The root of the word “sacrifice” is “make holy.” In a perfect world, there would (will?) still be sacrifice but not involving suffering and death. Humankind is called to be creation’s priesthood, voicing the glory, thanks, and praise of all creatures. It’s in our fallen world that truly sacrificial obedience to God will also and always come at a cost, supremely and uniquely in the life and death of Christ, our true High Priest.

Our whole life is to be offered to God the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit: our relationships, our thoughts, our leisure, everything, including our work. This is an imperfect offering, acceptable only because of Christ’s offering, but offered it must be. We are to make this offering day by day, continually asking for God’s guidance and grace in our work.

We’re also to make this offering when we come together in worship and especially in the sacrament of the Eucharist. It’s no accident that the elements presented there are bread and wine, the combination of God’s gift in nature (wheat and grapes) and human effort, of God’s creation and human work. When we place them on the altar, they represent not only creation but ourselves and what we’ve made of the life God has given us. The elements offered are both tainted by sin and also shining with the glory of grace given and responded to. Yet, by the Mercy of God in the Work of Christ, enfleshed, crucified, risen, and ascended for us, we are acceptable in the Beloved. However, we articulate what happens in the Eucharist—that surely is at the heart of it. 

“Eucharist” means “thanksgiving.” The Great Thanksgiving Prayer consecrates the sacrament. And within that prayer is normally an invocation of the Holy Spirit, blessing the elements and us. This is an assurance that he works in us and through us, changing us into the likeness of the Lord from one degree of glory to another, weaving our work into the new creation in the Body of Christ. Then, having renewed Christ’s presence in us by feeding on him in those same elements, we go out as the Body of Christ into the world as his instruments in making it his world again.

Let’s anchor all this down with Romans 12:1–2. If I may amplify Paul’s pregnant words: “I appeal to you, therefore,my brothers [and sisters], by the mercies of God, to present your bodies [that is, your whole lives embodied as a priestly community wherever you live and work and worship], present them as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God. This sacrifice is “logiken latreian” [a phrase almost untranslatable in its Pauline richness—something like the worship of reasoning spiritual beings enlightened by the Holy Spirit and him who is the Word]. Do not be conformed to this world, this age [this local community you live in, shot through with the defects of the fallen world] but be transformed by the renewing of your minds [the renewal of them, not the denial of them or the denigration of your God-given human reason]. So that you may discern what is the good and acceptable and perfect will of God [and thus be a sign and instrument of the Kingdom of God, the Reign of God, in your part of the universe which Christ loves and is redeeming].”

(Image by Priscilla Du Preez, CC Zero)