By Abigail Wooley
The Rev. Nathan Jennings of the Seminary of the Southwest spoke on “Liturgy and the Inside-Out Economy” on April 27, at the third gathering of the Living Church Institute’s Faith Talks series in Dallas.
The Rev. Matthew Boulter of Christ Episcopal Church, Tyler, interviewed Jennings, focusing their conversation on his book Liturgy and Theology: Economy and Reality (Wipf and Stock, 2017).
Boulter asked Jennings to unpack the concept of house as it appears in the Bible and the liturgy. Jennings said the ancient structure of theology consisted of two parts: theology and economy.
“There’s God, and there’s what God does,” he said. The origin of economy is the Greek oikos, (house). A house is what God does, not only what he builds, because “oikonomia, or economy, is a verb-y kind of thing.” A house provides and protects, and progeny come from it.
Jennings and Boulter traced this idea through many portions of the Old Testament, in the context of the Ancient Near East, where temples are called “God’s house.” Jennings said that even genealogies, the lists of progeny, can be understood as illustrations of God building a house.
To introduce liturgy into the conversation, Boulter quoted Jennings, who writes in his book that “liturgy renders a house.” While a house is ordinarily a structure, what matters is that “there is a material residue of a dynamic behavior.” A house takes its shape to accommodate the activity of the family: providing, protecting, and procreating.
Jennings applied this idea of development to the temple: since tabernacle worship existed before the temple, “they already are doing the activity that he is trying to build a house for.”
“The liturgy is the table fellowship of this family with their God,” he said. “It’s what we call a sacrifice: we share a meal together with the Lord.”
He drew parallels between the items in the temple and the utensils that supply a kitchen. “In both covenants you have a communion meal with the Lord.”
When Boulter asked what the first “house of God” was, Jennings described the table fellowship of God with his children, the angels. Just as a house results from human activity, “so, too, angels relate to God in this economy that he has given them, and we have galaxies, and eukaryotic cells, and things start spilling out as residue in the material cosmos.”
As God provides for his children, “the house of God is creation,” Jennings said.
Following Alexander Schmemann, Jennings described the Fall as ingratitude: the failure to recognize God’s provision in the garden, “because what you do when you’re provided for is you say ‘thank you.’”
“Eucharist,” Boulter said, and Jennings agreed: “So God keeps re-establishing houses.”
The role of sacrifice in a gift economy was the next step. Jennings said that for the ancient Hebrews, a rich person offering a heifer and a poor person offering a turtle dove would eat the same meal. The poor man “would otherwise have no access to red meat … except that now they’ve come and shared it at the table of the Lord. This rich dude can only eat red meat in sacrifice: he doesn’t just sacrifice and eat it by himself. … It’s communion.”
Jennings tied this type of sacrificial economy to the work of Jesus. “When the sacrifices stop, who can restart this economy?”
The two explained how the logic of sacrifice makes sense of the Eucharist for us. Before the Fall, Adam’s sacrificial sign of gratitude would have been, as Boulter read from Jennings’s book, “self-sublimation in the ecstasy — the standing outside oneself of perfect union with God.”
Jennings added, “But after the Fall, the communion is breached. You’re now presuming self-sufficiency.” He explained that sacrifice after the Fall would have meant annihilation, and thus the Old Testament system of substitution was a grace.
“In our bloodless sacrifice, who’s eating whom?” Boulter asked Jennings.
Jennings answered that the bread and wine are offered as food to God, along with “ourselves, our souls and bodies,” though we depend on God to transform both offerings into something sufficient. “We are consuming the body of Christ and thus becoming the body of Christ. … But on a deeper level, we’ve been consumed into the body of Christ.”
A number of questions from the audience related the conversation to 1 Corinthians 11, addressed Paul’s mission to demonstrate a gift economy, and explored what it means to be consumed by a lifegiving God.
Boulter’s assessment: “One of the things we are trying to do tonight is to make the liturgy strange again.”