The Word of the Lord
Part III in A Series of Articles on our Liturgical Heritage
ONCE THE COMMUNITY has gathered, having been prepared for worship by the organ prelude, personal prayer and perhaps contemplation of the week just past (and on festive occasions, a grand procession around the boundaries of the worship space) the celebrant begins the Liturgy of the Word with a bold acclamation,”Blessed be God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” The people respond, “And Blessed be his Kingdom, now and for ever. Amen.” This straightforward declaration extols the worthiness of God and clearly states the purpose of the gathering right from the start. Because God is worthy of praise we have set aside all other obligations, all other duties and demands, to worship this day. The liturgy flows from this recognition of our mutual purpose and our assertion that God is hallowed and sanctified, the goal of every human endeavor, who presides even now over a kingdom of which we are citizens by baptism.
Following a song of praise or supplication for forgiveness of our shortcomings (depending on the emphasis of the season) the celebrant offers the Collect of the Day (pronounced col.lect). This brief prayer succinctly states the theme of the day, a theme that is supported by the scripture lessons which follow. It is a fascinating irony of religious history that worship in the Anglican tradition utilizes an abundance of scripture even while celebrating the richness of the liturgy of the historic and continuing church. Although the continental reformers claimed to hold a high view of the primacy of scripture in worship, over and against the liturgical elaborations of catholic tradition, worshipers hear more scripture recited through paraphrase and direct quotes in the worship of the Book of Common Prayer than in most Protestant services. A reading from Hebrew scripture is offered, along with a psalm, a reading from one of the New Testament Epistles (the Greek word for letter) and a reading from the Gospel. Indeed, the authority of scripture has always held a central place in Anglican thought. This high view is articulated in the grandness of the gospel procession.
Someone once said of worship, “what we say we believe, we do.” Believing therefore that the gospel reveals the truth of the salvation of God in Christ, that it is a vehicle of grace for the hearer and not simply an historical record of God’s actions in a history long past, the reading of the gospel is given a special place in our worship. The sometimes elaborate procession with the Gospel Book into the midst of the congregation symbolizes our obedience to our Lord’s demand to “go forth into the world,” proclaiming the salvation of God in Christ to all people. On festive occasions the reader may cense the gospel book to symbolize the mystery and holiness of the Word.
A sermon follows these four readings. It is a somewhat daunting task to approach a pulpit following the prominence and dignity afforded the recitation of scripture in our worship. Indeed, it is a time when the astute preacher is keenly aware of the inadequacies of learning, knowing that the Word will be spoken and heard only with the participation of the Holy Spirit in the process. A famous European theologian in the reform tradition, Karl Barth, once said that the Word becomes the Word only when God decides to make it the Word. The challenge of the preacher is to offer reflections with intelligence and learning as far as possible, recognizing all along that if it “works” it works because of something, someone else’s grace and presence. As with most paradoxes of the religious life, it is both burden and privilege simultaneously.
1 During Eastertide the opening acclamation proclaims Christ’s victory over death and the penitential season of Lent begins with a statement acknowledging his mercy toward sinners.
2 It is an interesting and useful exercise, as a preparation for worship, to read the Collect, identifying themes within the prayer and looking for threads of those themes in the readings appointed for the day.