The Heresy of Formlessness
The Heresy of Formlessness is the title of a book by a German novelist. It is published by a Catholic publishing house. Surprisingly, it is a sharp attack on the Vatican II decision to reform the Roman Catholic liturgy in the 60s. The Catholics replaced what was basically our page 15 service with a more contemporary one. Most Protestant denominations, including the Missouri Synod, followed suit. The weakness of the reform, indeed of contemporary worship in general, is that it lacks focus. The author's contention is that there is an incipient heresy in formlessness.
I agree. Take the holiday just past. Can you say what exactly the world around you was celebrating? I say their celebration was basically formless. It was the amorphous "holiday season;" it was a season alright defined from Thanksgiving to Christmas Day, but there really isn't any "holy day" in this holiday. We're told by one "news" story after another that this is the season of giving, sharing, helping, thanking, but if you asked what is this holiday season about, you'll be told at best "others" and at worst "I don't know."
The world makes a herculean effort to give form to this formless holiday season. Parts of it try to make it a celebration of winter. Jani-King wanted to make it Memorial Day. They sent the church a "holiday" card saying "During this holiday season let us honor and remember" those who have sacrificed their lives for us. The UT college of Natural Sciences sent a card one year making "the season" about "the single light of science." In 1966 one man tried to make it about African American culture and called it Kwanzaa. In 1879 a Rabbi in Cincinnati took a minor Jewish celebration, Hanukah, and tried to make the season about the rededication of the temple in the second century before Christ. And even what we know as Christmas, everything from the Santa stories, Rudolph, elves, Christmas trees and Christmas cards comes from the 19th century.
Ever read a novel or see movie where the characters struggle to find meaning, a point to what they're doing or suffering? One of them will say, "It's got to be about something." Yes, this holiday season which eclipses everything else has got to have a form, a shape. Even when Christians say, "It's about the Birth of Christ;" "Jesus is the reason for the season;" or, "It's about peace on earth good will toward men;" that's not concrete enough. You're close if you just say the season is about Christmas if you know where that word comes from.
We'll eventually cover that, but first consider this: the brightest, most brilliant light is confined, limited, focused light. Think of a laser. Now think of the night sky; see the Milky Way splashed across it; on a moonless night those billions of stars give light to the earth. But all of that light and even the light of the moon were eclipsed by one star that God sent. Though it didn't behave like a star, for no star appears and disappears, no star high in the heavens would be able to guide you on a 2 hour journey from Jerusalem to Bethlehem and stop over one house in the city; though it didn't behave like a star men wiser than we are in astronomy called it a star. And this star belonged to Jesus, they called it "His star," and it focused the news and glory of the new born King in the eyes of these Gentiles.
This is the celebration called Epiphany. This is a celebration that has form and concreteness to it. Epiphany comes from the Greek verb epiphaino which means "to appear" or "bring light to." Paul says in Titus 2 "For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men." And in Titus 3, "But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared." Paul say God's grace, kindness, and love have epiphanied. Where? Right there; in that Baby born of Mary. Pick Him up; do like you do with a newborn: count His fingers and toes; study His hand. And marvel with St. Ambrose "that the Lord chose such a birth." This Baby is not just the Lord's grace, kindness, and love to you; this Baby is your Lord.
The wise men knew this too. The star was "His." The journey is about finding "Him." And did you notice when the star finally stops, Mary is in the house too, but both their worship and their gifts are given to "Him?" Their worship, stewardship, and faith are all directed toward a concrete thing. A Baby. This Baby. And, as much as you may like the hymn "O Little Town of Bethlehem," for the wise men it wasn't about Jesus being "born in us today." No contrary to the popular piety that says unless Jesus is born in your heart it doesn't matter if He was born in Bethlehem, the real truth is if Jesus wasn't born in Bethlehem it wouldn't mean anything to have Him born in your heart. Having Jesus "born" in you is another one of those formless, vague things; Jesus born in Bethlehem has form, shape, substance to stand on, to worship, to adore. The concrete Baby Jesus bent their knees and opened their hearts.
From ancient times there has been agreement that the gifts reflected who Jesus is. It's only been in modern times that the gifts came to be thought of as being about what was going on in the wise men. Gold, frankincense, and myrrh rather than indicating that Jesus is King, God, and Sacrifice reflect what we do: believe, pray, and suffer. Again see the shapelessness of this. Believe what? Pray about what? Suffer for what? No, the wise men offered concrete gifts in worship of a real Baby.
Their gift of gold confessed Jesus to be their king. They came in search of the one born king of the Jews. His star led them to this crib, so down went their knees and out came their gold. Kings were recognized by paying tribute in gold. But the Babe was more than their king; He was their God. Incense was an ingredient required for offerings to God according to Exodus 30. Leviticus 24 says it was offered with the Bread of the Presence. Incense was only offered to God; it wasn't the Glade of the ancient world. To this Baby, in this house, under this star they offered what could only rightly be offered to God. They also offered myrrh. The name denotes bitterness, as the song says, "Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume." Myrrh was used chiefly in burying people. Jesus was given myrrh 3 times. At His Epiphany. As a sedative in the wine before crucifixion, which He refused, and it was applied to His body after He died.
The wise men recognized that any king who would reign over sinners, any God who would claim sinners would suffer painfully. Ever try to pick a rose, pick up a pan fish, or pull a thistle? There's almost no way of doing that without getting stuck. There is no way for the holy God to pick up sinners in His hands without getting stuck. There's no place to grab where we are not sinful, not dirty, not thorny. So it works like this; if God in His holiness should come into contact with sinners there would be nothing but dust, ashes, and vapors left of them. Therefore, God veiled His holiness in the flesh and blood of Baby Jesus and then took on the sins of all sinners. Having lived a life without sinning in anyway, Jesus could suffer for our sins. Every last drop of suffering had to be endured or there would still be some left for us to suffer for our sins, so Jesus refused the myrrh at the cross.
At Epiphany real myrrh is offered to a real Baby as proof that here in flesh and blood is the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. Here is the One who will suffer and ultimately sacrifice Himself, so that sinners, like you and me, can be saved. Here in this flesh and blood Baby is the answer to the guilt that nags you, the sins that bother you, the death that haunts you. This Baby bears away from you your guilt, your sins, and your death; this will hurt Him hellishly all the way to the grave. The wise men know that so they give myrrh, a substance used in burying people, to a baby!
Back to the heresy of formlessness. Another Lutheran pastor wrote a newsletter article asking, "Where would the wise men worship today?" That's a good question. Would these men who followed a particular star, to a particular house, to a particular Baby kneel in adoration, bow in faith, or sing in praise at formless celebration of feelings? Would they sing about a formless, shapeless majesty, power, or glory of God? Would they make the focus of their worship other people when they don't even focus on Mary the mother of their Lord?
They came seeking a King, a God, and a Sacrifice, not a feeling or even a celebration for that matter. Their worship only started when they found Baby Jesus. They didn't worship His star; they didn't worship His house, and they didn't worship His mother. They only fell down before Him; they only worshipped Him; they only gave gifts to Him. And their worship flowed from the concrete reality of who He was: their King, and God, and Sacrifice.
Formless worship indicates formlessness, shapelessness to your God. This is a major theme in both the worship of Jews and Muslims. Their gods have no form, and it's an abomination to think they do. Christianity glories that God took on form in the Virgin's womb. Therefore, our worship centers on the Person and Work of Jesus. It centers on His Presence. His presence in Baptism where we're joined to Him. His presence in Absolution where we hear Him speaking today. And particularly His presence in Communion where His Body and Blood are again present on earth in a tangible way.
Earlier I said the simple word Christmas can form, shape this season if you know what it means. Christmas is a contraction of the words Christ and Mass, Christ-Mass. It was the Holy Communion service remembering the birth of Christ. A Roman Catholic Army chaplain used to send me a Christmas card with the Communion wafer and chalice prominently displayed. This is good theology; this is formed, shaped worship. Here in the Body and Blood of Christ is the eternal light of God focused at a point on earth. Here is where the God who is Spirit who has taken on flesh and blood takes the form of Bread and Wine. Here's where the wise men would worship; here's where those made wise by God's grace do worship. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Epiphany of our Lord (20100106); Matthew 2: 1-12