Teaching Liturgy in a Core Class

I’m currently teaching THEO 200 at Valparaiso University, The Christian Theological Tradition, a core class required for all undergraduates. I have taught courses similar to this one in Catholic universities as well. It is a rather broad survey course, but I feature Liturgy in a variety of ways. I have also learned – and am in the process of learning – how to refine the pedagogy to maximize student learning (in spite of my own weaknesses).

In a required course, one can make no assumptions about student knowledge entering into the course. This is true even for upper-division (more advanced) undergraduate courses in theology. In fact, even majors and minors in theology typically have no background in liturgical methodology, though they have the benefit of coming in with an established theological vocabulary.

In the survey course, we read primary texts, so Baptism focuses on Cyril of Jerusalem and the structure of the RCIA. A viewing of “Come to the Water” gives students eyewitness accounts of a mainstream approach to Baptism, and we compare that with the historical account in Cyril’s mystagogical catecheses. My objective is to read the texts and contexts with students to learn how ritual participation leads one into covenant with the living God. Cyril is quite clear about the dynamics between renunciation of Satan and confessing faith in Christ, and he also illuminates Baptism as participation in the life of Christ, so the participants adopt new identities, especially in catechesis no. 3. Pedagogically, I connect this program of identity formation with themes explored earlier in the class: God’s creation of a covenant in the Hebrew Bible, the fulfillment of that covenant in Christ in the New Testament, and how Cyril illustrates ritual participation as a voluntarily entrance into that covenant, by word (renunciations and oaths) and gesture (outstretched arms, turning, receiving Communion). I have also connected Cyril’s explanation of dying and rising with Christ, and adopting a new life in Christ, with Athanasius’s teaching on the Incarnation as Christ recreating human nature for all of humankind. I’m sure it would be ideal to do more, but I am of the mind that less is more, and spending time with a shorter text is more formative than reading longer secondary texts. Certainly the course has an ecumenical dimension – we’ll be getting into the details of Eucharistic theology by reading Luther’s Babylonian Captivity of the Church.

I covered some of the same material on Baptism from an Eastern perspective in my course on Eastern Christianity. I asked students to help me demonstrate a ritual exorcism, including the acts of spitting upon Satan, and performing a complete prostration to the floor while confessing faith in Christ and the Trinity, before reciting the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. In this class, I played more show-and-tell. I happen to have my grandfather’s old ‘antimension’ in my possession – the shroud of the burial of Christ signed by a bishop (from 1859!) with relics of a saint sewn in that authorizes a priest to lead Eucharistic Liturgy. The antimension lays on every altar of every parish church in the Churches of the Byzantine Rite. My grandfather received this antimension to lead Liturgy for people gathered in displaced person camps in Germany after World War II – the icon of Christ’s burial and the relics make the antimension a portable altar upon which the Church’s offering is sent up to God, a Church in Communion with her saints who are present through the relics sewn in (and, of course, enthroned in the altars built in the churches). I say this not out of piety, but as a pure reflection of living practice.

I also taught the significance of Holy Week and Pascha as a feature of Eastern Christian life. In the past, I would present historical sources, and I would observe the same method for a graduate course on Byzantine liturgy, but I adjusted my method to be compatible with undergraduate pedagogy. I presented some history and emphasized the features of the liturgies of Holy Week, and then I provided samples of some of the more salient moments: YouTube clips of Forgiveness Vespers beginning Lent, the Lamentations at the tomb of Christ on Holy Saturday, the responsorial psalm announcing the resurrection on Holy Saturday (i.e. ancient Paschal vigil), the midnight procession that begins Pascha, and a clip from “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” depicting the lamb feast (margheritsa) and the unedited joy of the people who break their long fast with their favorite foods before dawn even breaks. Students in both classes are also required to visit parishes, observe worship, and speak to people in the parishes about worship.

This is just a sampling and it does not exhaust my approach, but I think – I hope! – students are learning a lot. The other key is to give students space to digest material and reflect upon it, and this is a challenge for faculty who are servants of an assessment culture that values quantity over quality – at least in general.


  1. Would you please publish a link for Come to the Water? A very cursory YT prowl did not give me an answer. Thanks

  2. Excellent! Great sources to illustrate The Great Tradition theoretically still central in Roman, Eastern, Lutheran and Anglican Traditions. Reading your essay gives me hope that Valpo still has a bit of a catholic soul, in spite of other reports of how distant the Great Tradition has become there.

  3. The key idea here is that ritual action effectively engages the participant(s) in divine realities. Though this notion will be one that most religious groups worldwide would accept without a second thought, it seems one that has particular difficulties for ‘westerners.’

    In the UK, the puritan tradition has until recently been the dominant one, which is profoundly anti-ritual and views engagement with divine realities as something purely interior and ‘sacraments’ as of purely significative value if they have value at all. This has had a deep influence on our national psyche, where ‘you don’t have to go to Church to be a Christian.’

    So how does one go about restoring the idea of the sacramental act in such a culture? Students have pointed out to me as we read Cyril’s Catecheses that they understand the thinking behind them, but ‘we don’t think that way any more.’


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