I’ve got to teach a class on the liturgy, and I’ve got sushi on my mind. I’ve also got Karl Barth, a staunch Reformed Protestant, on my mind. Yes, I think sushi and a Protestant will be our way into Catholic liturgy.
I keep imagining what I will do on the first day of class. The first day of this introduction to a strange and fundamental puzzle: the fact that Christians pray, that prayer is their primary task, and that they are incomprehensible without prayer. Not just any prayer, but liturgy: the prayer of the Church, the holy work (Λειτουργία) of the Church that watches for God and sings of His salvation.
Oh you mysterious and odd thing, liturgy. You are boring. You are old. No one cares about you. And – dare I say – without you, Christianity itself dies.
What will I do on the first day of such a thing?
My chair informed me that the digital version of the course title cut off half of the word “liturgy,” so many of my students will be expecting a class on Christian lit…erature. This is exciting, since it will be cause for epic confusion on the first day. Confusion is fun. Then our fun will increase when – after roll call and the like – we stand up and move to the chapel that dominates the heart of campus. (Hearts: ignored in all places.)
Out of the stuffy classroom and through what I assume will be another absurdly beautiful California day, and into the cool enclosure of a sacred space. The forgotten microcosm of what encloses even the beautiful day itself. The little universe that crams the entire universe into its low arches. Shall we just sit there, and stare at the things? The light and the dark and the statues, the gold and the stone, the silence and the water. Shall we stare at them and wonder? What is this place, what are these symbols, what happens here? Where did it come from, and what might it mean?
Such is the mystery of my class.
Then, next time, I think we should watch a little video about sushi. This will help us. I promise it will. There is a beautiful documentary, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, about the best sushi chef in Japan. He is a man intent on his craft. His work is a wonderful art, a precision born from years of tireless practice. We must talk about formation, about practice and shaping. We must talk about ritual (I can hear the screaming). Yes, we must get used to these ordinary things. These daily things. The repetitions. So, first, I think we will talk about them in an extraordinary setting: through this astounding man and his sushi.
It could be that the liturgy is composed of very ordinary things employed for very extraordinary purposes.
Then we might ask ourselves why meals are so important…
We shall also present ourselves with the enigma of Karl Barth, the Protestant who perplexed and infuriated Catholics. He rather famously said that the analogy of being is the Anti-Christ, and so no one could ever in good conscience be a Catholic. Sometimes it seems that this is the only thing he was known to say. Of course he said many other things, many of which are far more interesting. He said, for example, that dogmatics is ethics. That is, he said that thought about God is also a call to action. Contemplation and action, stillness and deed, need not be set against one another.
And, you see, Christians pray. Christians do this useless thing that looks like thinking. Not even thinking! It looks like standing and sitting and singing. And, you see, this apparently useless thing: it is the key to everything – because its key is God himself. Because dogmatics is ethics, because thought coheres with action. This thing, this liturgy, is an action. And it calls us to act. And God himself acts in it. It is the contemplation of God, and it is the action.
Sushi and a Protestant and Catholic liturgy. Yes indeed.