Fans of the British satirical series “Monty Python” and their movie The Meaning of Life will perhaps remember their portrayal of Christian liturgy. A man in cassock, surplice, and academic hood, looking every inch a stuffy Church of England cleric comes forward in chapel and begins a prayer to God with these words: “O Lord, ooh You are so big, so absolutely huge, gosh, we’re all really impressed down here, I can tell You. Forgive us, O Lord, for this our dreadful toadying, but You’re so strong and well, so super. Amen.” It is of a piece with the cultural nihilism for which the Pythons are so famous, and reflects how many people saw the established Church of England and perhaps religion in general. Unfair characterization? Absolutely. Deep resonance with the public? Absolutely. That’s why the satire works.
Could the Pythons have a point? We don’t say anything quite so crass, but it might seem to some that our Liturgy does indulge in some toadying. Take for example part of the Anaphora from the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom: “You are God, ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, ever-existing and eternally the same, You and Your only-begotten Son and Your Holy Spirit”. Why say this to God? Doesn’t He already know that He is ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, ever-existing and eternally the same? Why tell Him every Sunday? Then is this not dreadful toadying and fatuous flattery? What’s all this about? Why keep on praising Him?
The answer can be found in, of all places, the Song of Solomon. There we also find page after page of praising. “Behold, you are beautiful, my love, behold, you are beautiful. You eyes are doves behind your veil. Your hair is like a flock of goats, moving down the slopes of Gilead. Your lips are like a scarlet thread and your mouth is lovely. Your cheeks are like halves of a pomegranate. Your two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle.” There is more, but you get the idea, and it goes on and on. Even when reading it across a cultural divide (goats? Gilead? fawns?) the mutual delight and sensuousness comes through clearly enough. Presumably not even a nihilistic Python would accuse the person uttering such words of toadying or flattery. The person uttering these words was clearly in love, and utterly captivated by the beloved.
It is not just in the Song of Solomon that we can find such sentiments. Shakespeare has them too. When youthful Romeo sees his true love Juliet appear at a window, he utters these famous words: “What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east and Juliet is the sun! Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon, who is already sick and pale with grief that thou her maid art far more fair than she. It is my lady, O, it is my love! O that she knew she were! What if her eyes were there? The brightness of her cheek would shame those stars, as daylight doth a lamp. Her eyes in heaven would through the airy region stream so bright that birds would sing and think it were not night.”
I defy even a Python to satirize this as “dreadful toadying”. Like the voices in the Song of Solomon, this is the voice of a heart consumed by love and longing. Shakespeare of course expresses it superlatively well, but everyone who has been in love can relate to this and felt such things.
And what does the lover long for? Here one must be careful, and keep cynical bits of Freud and his gang well away. Remember your past; remember the time when you were in love, and smitten with your beloved. What did you want most of all when thinking of her? As usual C.S. Lewis has the answer. In his book The Four Loves, he speaks of a man who is in love as experiencing “a delighted pre-occupation with the Beloved—a general unspecified pre-occupation with her in totality…If you asked him what he wanted, the true reply would often be, ‘To go on thinking of her.’ He is love’s contemplative.”
This is also what the Church wants and says in its Liturgy. The Church is the Bride of Christ, and longs for her heavenly Bridegroom. It is surely significant that at the end of the Bible the Church we find the Church as the Bride, ready for her divine Husband and waiting for their wedding supper (Rev. 19:7, 21:2f). Like the mutual delight we find in the Song of Solomon, the Church longs for Christ, and pours out words of praise: “Behold, you are beautiful, my love, behold, you are beautiful. You are God, ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, ever-existing and eternally the same, You and Your only-begotten Son and Your Holy Spirit”. This is not toadying; it is love, delight, spiritual infatuation. It is the voice of the Bride, longing for her Bridegroom. All she wants is Him: to behold Him, to praise Him, to think of Him. And to go on thinking of Him.
One day this will come true, and they will live happily ever after, and the Bride will go on thinking of Him and praising Him. St. Augustine knew this, and ended his massive City of God with that happy ending: “There we shall be still and see; we shall see and we shall love; we shall love and we shall praise. Behold what will be in the end, without end! For what is our end but to reach that Kingdom which has no end?” Here all nihilism is swallowed up in truth, and cynicism dies before an invincible and deathless love. Our liturgy even now gives us a taste of that deathless love.