Johnson. Worship: Rites, Feasts, and Reflctions.
A Lutheran scholar teaching at a Roman Catholic university, Maxwell E. Johnson surveys the contemporary liturgical landscape from a unique perspective. At home in fields as diverse as primitive Christian sources, the preaching of Martin Luther, the theology of Paul Tillich, and the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar, Johnson brings a sweep of interests to his research, evident from the topics he chooses as well as the depth with which he pursues them.
Scholars and students praise his historical survey, The Rites of Christian Initiation: Their Evolution and Interpretation (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1999), as well as his contributions (with Paul F. Bradshaw and L. Edward Phillips) to The Apostolic Tradition: A Commentary (Minneapolis: Fortress, Press, 2002), an invaluable study of one of the most seminal documents in the history of baptism.
But Johnson has been writing articles too. He has written for Worship, Catechumenate: A Journal of Christian Initiation, Rite, Studia Liturgica, Assembly, and Lutheran Forum, among other journals. He has contributed to festschrifts published in Rome and Chicago. He has lectured broadly. If you have run across something Johnson has written, you have probably wanted to know what else is out there. It has been hard to track down all the significant contributions Johnson has made to the field of liturgical study.
Until now. Pastoral Press earns the gratitude of Johnson’s admirers with the latest addition to its Worship series: Rites, Feasts, and Reflections. This series, having collected essays by luminaries such as Thomas Talley, John Baldovin, Bryan Spinks, and Kenneth Stevenson, now adds Maxwell E. Johnson to the list. The result is a precious collection of outstanding essays by one of the great liturgical thinkers of our day.
To reward even the most avid readers of his work, Johnson has added some new material to this book, like “The Feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe and the Season of Advent.” If you have read anything by Johnson and want to explore more of his thoughts, you will be amply satisfied with each succeeding essay in this collection.
Although the first part of the book collects essays under the generic title “Rites”, many of these deal with Christian initiation, and – specifically – with confirmation. It might have helped the presentation of this book if “confirmation” had wormed its way into the title. For those seeking insights into the history, meaning and pastoral conundrums of preparing candidates and celebrating confirmation with them, these contributions are important. Most significant from the pastoral perspective is the inclusion of the article, “Let’s Stop Receiving ‘Converts’ at Easter,” an appeal to churches to reserve Easter for baptisms, and to celebrate transfer of memberships at other times of the year.
In handling patristic texts, Johnson can think outside the box. In “Tertullian’s ‘Diem baptismo sollemniorem’ Revisited: A Tentative Hypothesis on Baptism at Pentecost,” he makes us reconsider the earliest evidence for an annual day of baptism. In “From Three Weeks to Forty Days: Baptismal Preparation and the Origins of Lent,” he argues for the existence of a three-week Lent in several locales of early Christianity.
But he reins in ideas that are too far outside the box, as a proposal to move Advent away from December, which he dismisses in “Let’s Keep Advent Right Where It Is!”
As a Lutheran theologian looking at Roman Catholic practices, Johnson is affectionate, informed, and challenging. He examines “The ‘Real’ and Multiple ‘Presences’ of Christ in Contemporary Lutheran Liturgical and Sacramental Practice,” which springs from a commentary on paragraph 7 of Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. He takes up the question of “Eucharistic Reservation and Lutheranism: An Extension of Sunday Worship?” He comments on the Lutheran-Catholic dialogue with “The One Mediator, the Saints, and Mary: A Lutheran Reflection.” And he examines some peculiarities in the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar with insight more keen that many Catholic pastors possess in “Liturgical Reflections on the Transfer of Solemnities and Feasts to the Following or Nearest Sunday.” When a writer of one faith tradition critiques the practice of another, the results often sound out of tune to a reader from the critiqued tradition. But to this Roman Catholic reviewer, Johnson writes with insight and care, like someone who has taken the time to absorb another tradition, stand inside it, and review it with love.
The original publication data for these essays are all contained in the book’s introduction, but it would have helped to have them more accessible as a note with each article. An index would also have been welcome.
But what we have is a joy. Those familiar with the complete Maxwell E. Johnson know that he cut his teeth by researching the Prayers of Sarapion of Thmuis in a series of articles that were all omitted from this volume because they were “perhaps too specialized for a collection of this type” (p. v). But after reading occasionally specialized treatments of various themes, the reader feels ready. Perhaps the next volume of collected essays will do us that favor.
This review first appeared in Doxology: A Journal of Worship 22 (2005):151-154.