What happened in the opening parts of the Eucharistic [communion] portion of our worship was to invite us into prayer and giving thanks to God, “The Great Thanksgiving,” if you may. After the exchange of the dialogue between the pastor and the people, the pastor says the Preface for the day. The reason for giving thanks on this day is rounded up in the words of the Preface. But the preface concludes with some generally fixed, standard words:
“And so, with all the choirs of angels,
with the church on earth and the hosts of heaven,
we praise your name and join their unending hymn:”
The Preface is to tie us together with all that in creation, in heaven and on earth, saints and angels [and sinners], that is giving praise to God. These words intentionally remind us that what we are doing in this moment is not something we do alone but is being done [in communion] with all of God’s creation.
What follows is then one of the great transitions in our worshipping experience. We are then invited to join the singing of all of the heavenly host. It is in this moment when, with words that were heard by the prophet Isaiah when he glimpsed into heaven [Isaiah 6:3, as well as Daniel 7:10 and Revelation 4:8 where we see/hear similar things].
Holy, holy, holy Lord,
God of power and might,
heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest
It is at this moment, in this place, that the separation between heaven and earth dissolves and we are placed fully in the presence of God. Note the word ‘Hosanna.’ It means, “save me/us, we pray.” You may also note that the concluding words echo the words of the crowd as Jesus rides into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. [Matthew 21:9-11; Mark 11:9-10: Luke 19:37-40]
One final thing to note about the Sanctus. Many people find it appropriate to bow at this moment in worship. This is the moment when we fully enter into the presence of God which, when you think about it, is a holy and awe-inspiring thing!
The portion of the Communion [Eucharistic] liturgy that includes the portions immediately after the offering through the Congregational Amen at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer is known as the Great Thanksgiving. This Great Thanksgiving has echoes to ancient Jewish prayers, as well as what we see/hear happening between Jesus and his disciples at the Last Supper. Parts of what is said here are the oldest known portions of Christian worship, echoing things we read in various portions of the New Testament [Matthew 26:26-28; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:17-20; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26].
Somewhere in the third/fourth centuries, three particular things were added to this very ancient Christian/Jewish table prayer. These three include the Dialogue, the Preface and the Sanctus. Let’s look at the Dialogue first.
In the Dialogue, the pastor is asking the congregation for the authority to proclaim the Great Thanksgiving in the name of all those present. It is in these opening words that we gather ourselves together to speak to God, because the Eucharist is a holy conversation, between humans [the presiding minister and the congregation] and between humanity and God. It is the Dialogue that opens up that conversation.
The Dialogue begins with the first two verses of a very old Christian greeting. “The Lord be with you.” “And also with you.” We are opening ourselves to one another for what is to come.
The second verses, “Lift up your hearts.” “We lift them to the Lord.” While there are a number of ways of understanding these words, at their root is a very practical action: they were a command to stand up and join the pastor in the prayers.
The third verses, “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.” “It is right to give him thanks and praise.” Here are the words that open up the dialogue between the pastor, the congregation, and God. The pastor asks, the congregation gives permission and acknowledges that they, too, want to join in these prayers to God.
Brought together by the bridge pieces of the Sign of Peace and the Offering, the Liturgy of the Eucharistic [Holy Communion] Meal is the third and final portion of our regular Sunday worship. In many ways, what we do when we celebrate Holy Communion is to be the deepest expression of what Christians believe heaven will be like. In these few moments we have the closest view of heaven we will get this side of being there fully. [According to our Orthodox brothers and sisters, everything to do with worship is a glimpse into heaven…]
Much as the Liturgy of the Word [lessons, homily, prayers] has echoes reaching back 2,000 years to synagogue worship Jesus and the disciples might recognize, the Eucharistic Liturgy has very ancient echoes, as well. These include, most obviously, references to the Last Supper – Jesus’s last meal with his disciples the night before he dies. This event itself includes references back to the Passover [some 1,500 years before the Last Supper]. We also know that what we do at Sunday worship reaches back to the house worship of the earliest Christians. Most congregational worship had a community meal at its center.
One of the great challenges in our Communion Liturgy is to remember that it is a community meal. That the bit of bread and sip of wine not just represent a meal, but is a meal – a community meal, a sign of the great feast that will be heaven in its fullest sense – is the challenge and vision we’re being invited to imagine and bring to life each Sunday we celebrate Holy Communion. This is nothing short of a glimpse of the great promises of God. It is, if only for just a moment, to be a hint of what the world could be and what it will become in Jesus.
There’s a little game I’ve played with small children that goes like this: I will ask, “What did you have for breakfast today?” You can imagine the answers and, if all goes well, someone will say something like, “Capt’n Crunch!” [Don’t judge my choice of breakfast cereal here!] I’ll ask, “Did you put milk on it?” “Yes!” And then we begin a series of questions; where does the cow live, what does the cow eat, where does the grass grow, where does the earth come from? The final answer is to help the child see that all things have their root in God.
The purpose of the offering, ultimately, is to help us see that all things have their root in God. The prayers and actions around the offering are to help us remember this. What we offer in our offering is only that which God has already blessed us with. We give it back with some combination of gratitude, humility and a sense of mystery. Gratitude that God first entrusted us with this gift, humility that it is so small in relation to God’s generosity and mystery in how God uses all things together for good.
It's unfortunate that so often the moment of offering feels like the collection of “dues,” or that somehow, we’re “paying” for church. Some of this is the things that are said to people, “we need offerings to run the church.” [true, to an extent] Or, we treat it as something of a “shake-down.” Something that may be helpful in all of this is that when our church is healthy, we come to understand that all we [our church/congregation] really are is the embodiment of the love of Jesus in the world. We’re not so much an “institution,” as we are a living, breathing thing. We make Jesus come alive in this place. Our offerings are a small sign and a small gratitude for our understanding of this.
“If you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” [St Matthew 5:23-24]
In some of the ancient worship liturgies, this moment in our worship was called the “kiss of peace.” Literally, you were to kiss one another as a kiss was a sign familial connection, of relationship and reconciliation. While today we may rarely kiss at the sign of peace, the purpose remains the same. This is the pivotal moment in our worship time. Having come into the church, made our confession, listened to the stories from the Scriptures, heard instruction and stated what we believe to be true, now comes the moment when we begin to make these things real. The sign of Peace is the moment we are to begin living into everything we have been working on up to this moment. We are to become the embodiment of reconciliation, forgiveness and the Gospel story and we begin with the people around us – our friends, family and fellow worshippers. We take this moment to live into the words of Jesus, to begin living into the forgiveness and acceptance we receive from God in Jesus by extending it first to those around us.
This moment is the pivotal move toward Holy Communion. We are now ready to come to this holy meal as a family that, collectively, is a sign of God’s hope and purpose for the whole world. It is, in the moment of the sign of peace [kissing or handshaking or hugging – your choice] we begin to truly become the church, which is the living embodiment of the love of Christ in the world. For one, brief, moment we should be able to look around us and think, “This is a bit of what heaven is about.”
The formal name for the prayers that follow the Creed is “the Prayers of Intercession.” This portion of our worship is based on St Paul’s instruction to his friend Timothy; “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings be made for all, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way [1 Tim 2:1-2].
The place where this prayer happens is not accidental and points to two specific things. First, it happens after the lessons and the sermon. The things we hear – in the words of the Bible and the instruction in the sermon – regarding God’s hopes and dreams for the world and for people are to be reflected in our prayers. While this prayer includes intimate things; requests for healing, thanksgivings for good things and the like, it is also a prayer for the world, for our place in that world and for all people. Second, at times when a baptism takes place is immediately before this prayer. The first thing a the baptized people of God participate in are the prayers of intercession.
A few things to note about the form of this prayer is specific. The opening words, “Let us pray for the whole people of God in Christ Jesus and for all people according to their needs” reminds us of the two great concerns of this prayer; the church and the world. The way each petition, or section, ends, with the words “Lord in your mercy; hear our prayer” is to remind us of the prayers to God at the beginning of our worship in the Kyrie. And the concluding words, “Into your hands, O Lord, we commend all for whom we pray,” recalls Jesus’s prayer on the cross [Luke 23:46], while the final words, “trusting in your mercy; through Jesus Christ our Lord” reminds us of 2 Corinthians 3:4 and Psalm 52:8.
Creed [Credo, in Latin] literally means, “I believe.” It is the opening words of the statement following the sermon. After gathering together, praying a bit, hearing the stories from the Bible and an explanation, we stand up and say, “I believe.” It is generally thought that before the fourth century, the Creed spoken by a congregation was a local understanding of the faith, generally based on Jesus’s baptismal commandment in St Matthew 28:19 [baptize in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit…].
In the fourth century, 325 to be exact, the idea of the Creed became standardized when the Council of Nicea composed a creedal statement to outline accepted Christian faith, particularly in regard to who Jesus is. This Creed was modified several times in response to other crisis in regard to the nature of God, Jesus and the church. As you might imagine, these were quite controversial issues. The Creed was a declaration of what was boundaries of true faith.
The Creeds are complex documents that say a lot in a few words. Over the years, literally hundreds of creeds have sprung up in Christian communities all over the world. Within our tradition, three came to be used in worship as summaries of true, historic, orthodox Christian faith. These are the Apostles’, the Nicene and the Athanasian Creeds. The Apostle’s Creed evolved out of the eighth century as a compact Baptismal formula, a simplified understanding of what it means to be a Christian. The Nicene Creed has since, the fourth century, had a place in the formal, festival liturgy of the church. The Athanasian Creed, which is very long, has an emphasis on the Trinity [which, when used, has been said on Trinity Sunday].
It is important to remember that the Creeds don’t always ask for understanding, they ask for faith, hope and trust in who the church has said that God is and what God is about. We may say them, but they have their fullest expression in how we live our lives. It is important to note that these are words that profess what we, as individuals, believe, but they are also words that bind us to the faith of the church that stretches back to the earliest Christians. To say and believe these words is to unite ourselves with a very long and deep story.
We also should note that these are words we say to each other, words we say to the world. To confess one’s faith is an action we make toward others. These are words that are directed toward the world. “I/We believe” is a bold action we make that seeks to tell others how we understand ourselves and understand them and the world we inhabit
Walk Through Worship is on vacation until Sunday, July 15!
Join us then as we continue our discussion about our worship practices.
Someone once asked, “What’s the difference between a sermon and a homily?” Well, one answer is that a sermon is a long or tedious piece of admonition or reproof; a homily is a tedious moralizing discourse that goes on for too long. In other words, not much. While there are any number of jokes about sermons and homilies, preaching has been part of Christian worship for as long as we’re able to discern. It’s something we’ve inherited from synagogue Judaism. We can see an example of this in Jesus himself in the beginning of his ministry [St Luke 4:16-30 In this story, we can see that the preacher is not always favorably received!]. As preaching has been around for a very long time, there are a number of sermons that are famous enough to be remembered over time. One, the Easter Homily of St John Chrysostom [the Golden-mouthed] has been read in Orthodox churches each Easter since about the year 400.
The location of the sermon in proximity to the lessons gives a strong clue about the topic for preaching. Simply put, we are to allow these lessons to give commentary and instruction to our lives in this time. And as our worship is seen as a communal act, we are to understand that the words of the Lessons read are working on all of us together. The stories of the Bible are to shape our lives in this time. The preacher, hopefully, opens up the possibility of what these ancient words can mean in our lives and our present world.
Having concluded the opening, gathering stuff and said a prayer, we move into the Liturgy of the Word of God. In other words, we’re going to read some Bible and talk about it. Jewish worship included the public reading of Scripture. Christians kept this practice and over time added readings from the writings of Paul [and other apostles] and the Gospels to readings from the Hebrew Scriptures. What these lessons, read at worship, should be seems to have become standardized among churches somewhere in the fifth-sixth centuries.
Originally, there was one cycle of lessons, read throughout the year and repeated every year. Generally speaking, churches that followed a lectionary [which includes Lutheran churches] kept this yearly cycle from approximately the early seventh century until the mid-1960’s [nearly 1,300 years]. This newly revised lectionary consists of a three-year cycle of readings whose foundation is a reading from one of the Synoptic [Mathew/Mark/Luke] Gospels with portions of John’s Gospel interspersed in various places.
The First Lesson is, except for the Easter season, from the Old Testament. This lesson usually connects to the day’s Gospel in a direct [and occasionally not so direct] way. In recent years, there have been some Sundays, particularly in the summer months, where a semi-continuous telling of an Old Testament story takes place.
The Second Lesson comes from the writings [not Gospels] of the New Testament. It can, occasionally, be hard to see the connection between this lesson and the Gospel. The general sense, though, is that there is to be for the church a balance in seeing the work of God displayed in Hebrew Scriptures and writings of the New Testament.
The Gospel Lesson follows a [somewhat] discernable pattern. We begin with stories of preparation for the birth of Jesus [or, his second coming] followed by Christmas/Nativity stories and the visit of the Wise Men on Epiphany. We enter Lent, learn about Jesus’s suffering and teaching about the challenge of being his disciple, the events of Holy Week, Easter and the time after Easter and then the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost. The other half of the year tells stories of Jesus’s teaching.
There is one additional piece to the church’s reading and that is the Psalmody. In the singing [or, reading] of one of the Psalms we are drawn into the worship of God by the Hebrew people, uniting us with them in their hopes and dreams of God’s work in this world.