Un sacrifice édifiant
By Taylor Burton-Edwards
I'm just back from a week of teaching at the Conference Center of the Central Congo Episcopal Area in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo. It was the second of three spiritual leadership seminars GBOD is offering this year with lay and clergy leaders primarily from the greater Kinshasa area. The third will be in September. This particular week focused on United Methodist worship, sacramental theology and practice.
The first full seminar day focused on planning United Methodist worship using the basic pattern of worship, the Christian Year and the Revised Common Lectionary (the first time it had been made available in DRC in French, the most widely spoken language there). Part of the first section on the basic pattern also included a small section on basic principles of Christian worship. And one of those basic principles was "Le culte est un sacrifice édifiant."
"Un sacrifice édifiant"-- a fine turn of phrase. In French, adjectives and adjective-like modifiers generally follow rather than precede the nouns they modify. This may seem strange to us in English, but I happen to sense a wonderful logic to it. It's the noun that matters first. The adjective only tells us how or why it matters in a particular way. The emphasis remains on the noun.
In English, we would translate the principle, "Worship is an edifying sacrifice." And then, very likely, in English (and maybe especially in the US!) we might tend to focus primarily on the "edifying" part, trying to describe what we can do to help worship be more "relevant" to more people, and thus actually downplay or even ignore the "sacrifice" part.
It seems to me that the US and others in the English speaking Protestant world may have nearly a fixation on worship "feeding us," underlining in a way the degree to which even worship of our Triune God has become a consumerist act.
But in French, the word order itself already points a very different way: "Un sacrifice édifiant." Sacrifice comes first. That it is edifying to us happens precisely because, in the first place, it is our sacrifice-- it is what we come to offer to our Triune God, not a "holy-related performance" put on by "the folks up front" that worshipers come to receive in order to be inspired, soothed, challenged or otherwise entertained.
Sacrifice: from the Latin, "sacrificare" < sacer, sacra, sacrum (adj., holy) + facere (to make), and therefore, "to make holy." Or, as we might have put it in former times, "to hallow." We gather in worship precisely to hallow, to offer ourselves, actually, as a sacrifice in praise, thanksgiving, intercession, confession, and attentiveness, in song, dance, music, procession, scripture, proclamation and testimony with basic elements of fire, water, oil, bread and wine, plus other arts and symbols that declare we are and seek to be Christ's own.
None of this is for us or even for our edification, directly. Rather, as we make of ourselves living sacrifices in all these ways, it is God who satisfies us. We make our sacrifice in response to God's self-offering for us. And our God through all these means and in response to them edifies us in the process.
As we plan, lead or come to worship, then, we do not come as marketers or consumers. We not set out with a primary purpose of edifying ourselves or the members of our worshiping communities. If we do, we will have received our reward, and that reward will be fleeting. Instead, we set out to offer ourselves to God as fully as we can, in every way we can, as best as ever we can. We come not to please ourselves, nor even to pacify or "attract" or propitiate our God (much less other people!). We love because Christ first loved us. We offer ourselves because God has acted decisively in Jesus Christ to bring complete salvation to the whole creation, our sinful-and-being-sanctified selves included.
And what's more, as we come to worship, to offer our sacrifices, we discover one more thing. The Holy Spirit helps us offer ourselves more completely, more honestly, more powerfully and even sometimes quite differently than we may have planned or thought we could have done. And so whatever we do in planning as part of our sacrifice, we also sacrifice, offering it up to God as well, trusting whatever we have come up with to be made more perfect not by our expertise, but by the grace of Jesus Christ, the power and communion of the Spirit, and the love of the Father. We offer, pure and simple, because God has offered, pure and simple. And precisely in the offering, in the sacrifice, God feeds us.
French is the second-most spoken language in The United Methodist Church. Perhaps it is time for more of us to pay attention to the wisdom of this language, and even its (to us English-speakers) odd word order, placing the emphasis just the way many of the biblical languages did-- noun first, and then modifiers.
If so perhaps we may learn the wisdom, as well, that it is not our
attention to "relevance" nor even our "high production values" that cause the satisfaction of those who worship, but rather nothing less than the presence and power of the Three-in-One to whom we offer ourselves in sacrifice.
May worship where you are become more of a "sacrifice edifying."