Sunday, June 27, 2010

It's About Time

I’ve always been intrigued by a brief congregational part inserted in the Eucharistic prayer, three lines, called the “acclamation of faith.”

The Book of Common Worship (1993) presents four alternative acclamations following separate introductory phrases:

Great is the mystery of faith:
Christ has died,
Christ is risen,
Christ will come again.
Praise to you, Lord Jesus:
Dying you destroyed our death,
rising you restored our life.
Lord Jesus, come in glory
According to his commandment:
We remember his death,
we proclaim his resurrection,
we await his coming in glory.

Christ is the bread of life:
When we eat this bread and drink this cup,
we proclaim your death, Lord Jesus,
until you come in glory.

The fascinating thing to me about all of these is that they cast the people’s acclamation of faith in temporal terms. The past is celebrated, the present is experienced and the future is anticipated.

It’s not that worshippers are expected to jump from one chronological time zone to another in the space of ten words or so. The past is not celebrated as past that is gone and remembered nostalgically. Nor is the future merely a pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by wishful thinking to be longed for. Rather both past and future are brought front and center by the presence of the risen Christ in the Eucharist.

The fullness of the present experience is in the recognition that our living Lord has redeemed the past, transforming the tragedy of the cross into a triumph to be shared with us in bread and wine, his body and blood.

Our present meal serves as appetizer for the heavenly banquet yet to come where Christ will preside just as he does before us now.

Both past and future are seen to be a present reality in the light of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who is our host at the Communion Table feeding us with his life, giving us to drink of his spirit. This past-present-future enfolding presents the Paschal mystery in all its fullness.

The rubrics for the acclamations of faith indicate that the people may “sing or say” one of them. Yet it is difficult to find melodies to use. So I composed one for the first acclamation, that we used for a number of years, as follows:

Do you use any or all of the acclamations in your church? Are they sung or spoken? If sung, where do you find the music?


I’m not sure of the history of these acclamations, since they are new to us Presbyterians as of the Book of Common Worship (1993). I believe they have been in use in the Roman Church for some time, at least since Vatican II.

In 2005, however, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops meeting in Chicago voted to withdraw one memorial acclamation text (“Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.”) that was on the original list of about a dozen or so alternatives in a proposed study document of the new English translation of The Order of the Mass I.

The explanation of the withdrawal was:

Unlike the acclamations of the Ordo Missae, the acclamation “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again” is more an assertion, a statement, rather than an expression of the gathered assembly of its incorporation into the Pascal Mystery. No pronoun is used to signify the people being incorporated into the Pascal Mystery. In the other memorial acclamations that incorporation is specified. For example: “Dying you destroyed our death, rising you restored our life ...” Therefore the committee voted to drop this one acclamation. (From

That’s an interesting, if very fine, point. Nevertheless, I would consider its use by the gathered community to be an action that in itself signifies “the people being incorporated into the Pascal Mystery.”

Sunday, June 20, 2010

You Can't Have One (Without the Other)

The subject isn’t “Love and Marriage,” but “Word and Sacrament.”

That Word and Sacrament belong together in Christian worship should go without saying. For many people, in the pulpits as well as in the pews, however, it is anything but a forgone conclusion. Week after week the Word part of the service is present, but the Sacrament is absent.

For many planners and leaders of worship, elders and musicians as well as clergy, it is acceptable to cut the service short by omitting the Lord’s Supper. I suppose it does save a little time and a bit of fuss in cleaning up, if that’s what’s most important.

All of this in spite of the fact that biblical and historical precedent have witnessed to the norm of Christian worship as both proclamation of the Word in Scripture and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Those who skip Holy Communion on a Sunday are seriously out of step.

It really takes both, Word and Sacrament, for worship to be complete. Leave out one, and you have a fragment of worship.

This came home to me in a different way when a colleague of mine and I were asked at the last minute to co-preside at Communion at a presbytery meeting. On arrival at the meeting, we discovered that there was nothing else to the service—just Communion, starting with the Invitation to the Lord’s Table and ending with the Charge and Blessing. Most times there would be scripture and sermon before, but I assume that got crowded out of the agenda by other pressing business.

Having only Communion for worship is a liturgical short-cut that I suspect is used more widely than some of us would like to know. Small group gatherings, at retreats, church committee or board meetings, camp and conference events are all likely suspects.

I had experienced this before as a pew-sitter, but not as a presider. That day, I particularly realized that you can’t really have one, even if it is the Sacrament, without the other, and call it complete worship.

The Lord’s Supper without the foundation of the proclaimed Word is cut loose of its moorings. It can drift into sentimentality where participants share the meal as a sign that they are good friends. They might as well have sent out for pizza; that would have accomplished the same thing.

Or, the Lord’s Supper can become a nice symbolic activity pointing back to a biblical story of long ago. Without the Word of the Risen Christ proclaimed, the breaking of bread and sharing the cup become old stuff and not present reality.

Or, the Lord’s Supper, without the balance of the Word, can turn into naked ritual, something to be done because…, well, just because. It can even morph into a magical kind of thing—if we do all this as prescribed, we will receive some sort of personal benefits. Remember that “Hocus Pocus,” as a magical incantation, is derived from a spoof of the words "Hoc est enim corpus meum" in the Roman Catholic Latin mass.

At any rate, as I find worship with no Communion to be truncated, worship that is only Communion starts in the middle, and is equally inadequate.

Where have you had “Communion-only” worship? What did you think about it? How did you feel about it?

Sunday, June 13, 2010


In my previous post I made the case (I hope) for the congregation to speak up and speak out their parts in worship. One of the smallest yet more frequent of their parts is the single word, “amen.” Four letters, two syllables, are to be spoken boldly by the people in the pews a number of times in a given worship service.

It tends to be treated as a throwaway, but it isn’t—or should not be. “Amen” has a long history and a rich heritage making it deserving of respectful and appreciative use in any time of worship, from the loftiest service in a lavish cathedral, to grace among family at the kitchen table. A Hebrew word, it’s been borrowed by Christians and Muslims and in constant use since ancient times.

By my Midwestern upbringing, I learned early on that “amen” was a useful liturgical expression. The boyhood saying I remember was, “If you believe it, say ‘Amen!’” Therefore if we did assent to any given comment—in church or outside—we’d give it a hearty “amen.”

That’s at least a beginning of its liturgical meaning. At the end of a prayer, we “sign on” by adding our verbal “amen.” If our “amen” is limp and low-volume, then the chances are we don’t really agree with the prayer.

Yet “amen” means more than simply “I agree.” The Hebrew root of the word translates variously as “firm” or “fixed” or “sure.” It speaks of something foundational, solid, unchanging, something that is true in an absolute sense. So when we say “amen,” we are affirming truth. This is much the same way Jesus used the word, which the English Bibles used to translate “verily.” As in the NRSV, Matthew 18.3, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” “Truly” translates the Greek word for “amen.” So saying our “amen” at the end of a prayer, for example, we agree that the prayer has truth in it, something that rings personally true.

“Amen” is also sometimes used in the sense of “so be it,” which also indicates agreement, but can carry the sense of trust, giving oneself up or over to another. The use of “amen” in worship, then, is a reminder that we yield our lives to God.

A rabbi friend of mine once told me that he could preach more than one sermon on that single small word. “‘Amen,’” he said, “is like a creed, a statement of faith. It’s an acronym in Hebrew for ‘God, trustworthy King.’” Its liturgical function for Jews is to say it to oneself silently before reciting the Shema (“Hear O Israel….”).

Every time we say “amen” in our worship, we bring a bundle of meaning to our affirmations of prayers both sung and said. Such a wondrous word deserves to be said firmly and faithfully.

Do people in your church speak up with their “amens”? If not, what’s holding them back? What might encourage them?
In my youth I learned to say “ay-men.” When I came to live in the great Northeast, I discovered most people said “ah-men.” Singers almost always sang “ah-men.” I’ve been told that “ay-men” is more common among conservative Christians, while liberals tend to say “ah-men.” Really?

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Assertive Worship

In the last two out-of-town worship services I attended I was brought up short by the assertiveness of the congregation.

When it came time for the responses back and forth between the leader and the people, the people were outspoken in the best sense of the word. They spoke firmly and gave the impression they knew what they were saying and it was really important enough to be heard.

The unison prayers were not mumbled through, but offered with confidence that they needed to be said and would be graciously heard by the Almighty. Even for the Lord’s Prayer, the people’s voices filled the hall as though it were a declaration of faith as much as a prayer.

When a prayer was vocalized by the leader, calling for a congregational “amen,” the response was said as though folks knew what it meant.

If the people spoke affirmatively, they sang equally as well. Hymns were sung out fully. If not everyone was exactly on pitch and some not even close, nevertheless the music was sung with considerable verve and zest. Some of the people around me even seemed to enjoy singing the hymns.

I must confess this really wowed me. I wasn’t used to such assertiveness by a congregation. Too often my experience, both as pew-sitter and worship leader, has been that folks just don’t get into worship like that. Most of the time they seem to mumble, or speak in hushed quiet tones. Unison prayers often have the sound of a gentle rumble. And if there is an “amen,” it’s barely above a whisper.

I wondered how this congregational assertiveness was accomplished in these two places, and yet was so foreign to most of the churches I usually attend. One reason, I’m sure, was that they were large churches with lots of people there—sheer numbers helped up the volume. But that didn’t really account for the assertiveness, the enthusiasm I heard and saw around me.

So I wondered if somehow the people in charge of worship, clergy and musicians and others, took the time to train the congregation. I could imagine the presiding clergyperson standing up at the beginning of the service and announcing: “This morning, friends, we’re going to learn how to say “amen” at the end of prayers…,” thence proceeding to give instructions about speaking forth firmly. It’s an idea worth pondering and perhaps trying from time to time, just to see if it makes any difference.

Maybe they sang hymns well because somebody got up in front of them and taught them how. It’s not an unreasonable possibility. Congregations take to new hymns reluctantly, but if they are educated a bit, they might come to enjoy singing again.

Even if no education or training formally took place in those churches where I was, there’s another thing that I’m sure did happen—the leaders led. They took part in the worship service as they expected everyone to take part—they were not just good examples, but they led the way.

When the worship leader speaks out the unison prayer, and does so with meaningful inflections, the people are encouraged to do the same. When the choir members (and clergy) sing the hymns with enthusiasm, it’s more likely that the people will do the same.

Common worship should be done at full enough voice so everyone knows they are worshipping with a community of people. Public worship (and what we do in church on Sunday mornings is, among other things, a public witness) needs to be said in such a way that everyone within hearing distance knows that in our prayers and our songs, our faith is asserted, affirmed, avowed, declared and professed.

How assertive is your congregation? What could be done to help worshippers worship more zealously?