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.
The conclusion to the opening of our worship is known as the Prayer of the Day or, Collect [if you’re into old English titles for things]. There are three prayers on Sunday morning that follow the same form, the Prayer of the Day, the prayer over the gifts and offerings before Communion and the Post-Communion Prayer. The Prayer of the Day begins with a greeting or salutation, which is intended to call us to order after the all of the opening action. The leader says, “The Lord be with you.” The response is, “And also with you.” If you’re old enough, you might remember the time when the response was, “And with thy spirit.” [Fun fact: if you happen to go to a church that follows an old-style liturgy, or an Episcopal church that uses the old Book of Common Prayer, or a proper English church, you will still hear, “And with thy spirit.” It’s sort of funky, but both phrases mean the same thing.]
The Prayer of the Day was originally a “free-form” prayer offered up by the worship leader. Over time [maybe the prayer prayed too long too many times??] these prayers became a “set” prayer that is intended to reflect the theme of the day, be that the lessons or the festival nature of that particular worship. Most of the Prayers of the Day date back nearly 1,500 years and were originally in Latin. Thomas Cranmer famously translated these prayers into English for his Book of Common Prayer first published in 1549. These prayers would form some of the most beautiful and memorable phrases in the English language. [Thomas Cranmer, a somewhat mediocre theologian, was a genius with words.] Echoes of those prayers are still found in the prayers we say on Sunday.
The Day of Pentecost is the conclusion of the Easter season. The feast of the Resurrection, Easter Day, stands at one end of the church’s calendar and the Day of Pentecost, fifty days after Easter, stands at the other. This is to say that Pentecost should not be thought of as something separate from Easter but the consequence of Easter. God raised Jesus from the dead, Jesus appears to his disciples, Jesus ascends into heaven, God sends the promised holy Spirit [St John 16:4-15; St Luke 24:49; Acts 1:8], the disciples become the embodiment of Jesus’s ministry in the world. The Day of Pentecost, the power that comes to the church, to the disciples, through the Spirit is the logical [if you can use that word] outcome of the resurrection of Jesus.
The Resurrection of Jesus stands as God’s declaration that the vision of the world that Jesus preached and acted out was God’s true vision for the world. What Jesus said and did is what the world, what humanity, was always supposed to be. The Day of Pentecost shows us how God is going to make this vision come to life in the world. God is going to give power and strength to ordinary people and, through them, reshape the world.
One of the reasons we celebrate confirmations on the Day of Pentecost is that we are affirming with our lives that we believe God has called us to the mission and ministry of Jesus through our baptisms and we believe God gives us the strength do live out this mission and ministry.
Immediately following the Kyrie is a canticle [song] that would be sung in the early church [the earliest record of anything like the Hymn of Praise dates to the mid-fourth century] as soon as everyone got into the church. These songs are “big,” in the sense that they speak to the idea of God filling the world with glory, majesty and power.
There are two particular hymns used in this place of our worship. The first is the Gloria in Excelsis. The Gloria in Excelsis [or, Gloria] is the oldest of the two. This hymn begins with the song of the angels in Bethlehem at the birth of Jesus [St Luke 2:14], “Glory to God in the highest and peace to God’s people on earth.” The hymn remembers three principal themes:
1. The majesty of God who is in heaven
2. The coming of Jesus into the world for the salvation of the world
3. The unity of God the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
The second hymn is “Worthy is Christ.” Occurring in several different forms, this hymn reflects a number of themes from the book of Revelation, particularly power [Rev 5:12-13], the singing of the people of God [Rev 25:3-4], the Lamb who was slain [Rev 11:17] and Worthy is Christ [Rev 5:9]. The idea that the worship that is taking place is the “feast of victory for our God” is an allusion to banquets and feasts are a sign of God’s world or kingdom [Isaiah 25:6, Rev 19:9, St Matt 22:1, etc.]. When we sing this, we are making the claim that what happens in worship is a small sign of the great feast of all of God’s people that will take place at the end of all time. It is a short summary of what we believe about God, Jesus, people and heaven.
Both of these hymns have commonality in giving praise to the greatness of God as well as the presence and sacrifice of Jesus, the Lamb of God. Given the celebratory nature of both of them, they tend to be omitted from worship during the Advent and Lenten seasons. As those seasons of the church year are more “penitential” or focused on preparation and repentance, these hymns can feel a bit out of place.
Kyrie Eleison; Christe Eleison.
Lord have mercy; Christ have mercy.
As the beginning of Christian worship become more elaborate as Christianity became a more established, legal religion in the middle of the fourth century, a worship leader would sing out prayer petitions asking for God’s peace to come to particular people or situations. These would include prayers such as for peace for the world, for civic rulers, for the coming of salvation to the world, for the church and for the unity of the church. The people would sing back, “Kyrie Eleison,” or “Christe Eleison,” the Greek words for “Lord have mercy,” or “Christ have mercy.”
What is interesting is that there is a very civil act that the early church adopted for itself. It was not uncommon for people to cry out to emperors and rulers, “Lord have mercy!” as they passed by. The word “hosanna!” [see the story of Jesus’s entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday; St. Mark 11:7-10] is a Hebrew word that means the same thing. In various places in the New Testament, we see people crying out to Jesus, “Kyrie eleison,” “Lord have mercy.” [see St. Matthew 15:22, 20:30-31 or St. Mark 10:46]
The Kyrie, properly understood, is one of the church’s oldest prayers for peace. As we sing through this prayer each week, we’re asking the Lord, asking Jesus to give us mercy [peace] in whatever situation we our friends or even the whole world finds itself. The petitions [petition is the proper word for each verse or request] also remind us that worship is not for us alone, but the inclusion of prayers for the world, for civil authorities, etc., remind us that we aren’t separating ourselves from the world when we come to worship. In fact, worship binds us more tightly to the word God loves so much.