The Doxology and the Transcendent God

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As a child, I spent summer Sundays reluctantly trapped in the pew because “children’s church” wasn’t meeting. Sermons were long in my Presbyterian church, and the pastoral prayers seemed longer, but one element of the service made a deep impression on me: I was haunted by the Doxology. Maybe it was the ancient sound of “Old 100th” on the organ, maybe it was the mesmerizing summons of the “heavenly host” to praise, maybe it was the terrifying reference to the “Holy Ghost,” but something of eternal awe gripped my young imagination.

Many years and several denominations later, at a continuing ed event with forty of my fellow United Methodist clergy, the facilitator asked us to group ourselves around the room as to whether we stressed God’s imminence or transcendence in our ministries. Most migrated to the imminence-side; only three of us emphasized God’s transcendence. Perhaps I can’t help myself, given my Scottish Calvinist ancestry, but I take great comfort in God’s transcendence. It’s not that I don’t believe that God is radically, wildly, intimately imminent; far from it. But what’s the good of a God who comes close if God didn’t start far away? What’s the mystery of the incarnation if God was just hanging out down the street anyway? And what hope does a broken world have if God’s too busy weeping with us or cuddling us to bother fixing it? I don’t need Jesus to be my buddy or my boyfriend so much as my Savior.

And so, to this day, one of my favorite moments of a worship service is the Doxology. In these thirty-odd seconds we join the universe, both the knowable creatures here below and the mysterious heavenly host above, in the fundamental praise of the Source of all being. In this doxology we proclaim God as the sole origin of all good and perfect gifts and worthy of all creation’s praise, creatures both earthly and heavenly. We name the Creator as the Triune God revealed in Jesus Christ. Depending on the week I’ve had, I live for this moment. It’s an opportunity to lift my hands and be immersed in the continuous stream of divine praise being offered by the universe. The rocks are ever crying out, the angels ever singing, the seraphim ever declaring holy superlatives—and we get to listen in for a moment. All else fades away; or, it might, if the ushers weren’t usually trying to give me plates of money or the prayer request slips.

In our church, we sing the Doxology after the offering and as a prelude to the Gospel Reading. I initially placed it here to introduce the custom of standing for the Gospel, but my practical rationale has earned unintended theological dividends. The Doxology calls us—heart, mind, soul, and strength—to stand at attention before our Almighty Creator. Our lips join the universe in praise of the transcendent Glory. But even as we prepare to hear the Holy One speak, the Gospel-word of grace descends into our midst. I bring the Bible down from the pulpit into the congregation, enacting the tabernacling Word. The transcendent One we proclaim in the Doxology is revealed as the imminent One who takes on flesh in the Gospel Reading.

“Doxology” literally means “words of glory.” The Doxology as we know it was written only four hundred years ago by Thomas Ken, an Anglican bishop, as a repeated chorus in his lengthy hymns for morning, noon, and evening prayers ( http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/issues/issue-31/where-did-we-get-doxology.html ). The “Gloria Patri” is a much more ancient text, and appears often in traditional liturgies. These “words of glory” offer breathing space within the worship service for pure adoration of God. Certainly the other elements of the service—songs of praise, prayers of supplication, Scripture readings—are also designed to glorify God, and usually do. But I find myself easily derailed. I pick songs because I like them, or like their tempo; I give undue mental attention to the timing of the service or how smoothly it’s running; I think more about how the congregation is perceiving this or that element, rather than how it magnifies God or what it might mean to God’s heart. Doxologies keep us on track, keep us looking toward heaven, keep us honest about who the worship service is really for.

And I find the Doxology continues to form me during the rest of the week. A moment of pure praise can illuminate the rest of life. In the midst of this broken, sinful world, I find myself ever needing to be reminded of who God is. God is bigger than me, or any element of my understanding; God is larger than my horizons; God’s thoughts are light years beyond my thoughts. In the everlasting barrage of funerals, hospitals, fractured relationships, and poverty, I need to glimpse a God who can make a difference. The world is a mess; I need a God who’s big enough to heal it. A God lauded by hosts of heaven and creatures here below is a God worth praising with my faltering lips, as well.

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