Sunday, April 24, 2011

Easter Is Here to Stay

It’s no small irony that the defining event of Christianity is celebrated by many, if not most, people only briefly. Easter is commonly brushed off in a single day, even in one hour. Easter Sunday comes and goes like a breeze, and that’s that.

The observance of Easter seems to be getting short shrift when compared to the lengthy buildup of Lent. In that forty-day (not counting Sundays) season, we follow the journey of Jesus to the cross and grave—and then comes the wondrous and wonderful message, “He is risen!” Awe and Joy and Singing God’s praise on Easter Sunday—and Monday it’s back to business as usual.

This approach to Easter, of course, ignores the fact that Easter is not a day but a season that begins on Easter Sunday and continues for seven full weeks winding up with Pentecost. This kind of neglect of Easter celebration is, to say the least, problematic.

For one thing, such a downsizing of Easter throws the Christian Year all out of balance.

Lent is what you might call a “dark” season. It usually begins in the grayness of winter when the days are short and cold. Lent has shadows also because it’s a time of penitence and repentance, sacrifice and discipline. Lent is work, and it can be hard work.

The biblical story of Lent is a difficult one as well. Jesus endures and survives wily temptations and moves through a drama that includes rejection, betrayal, abandonment, brutality and an agonizing death. And that’s where Lent leaves us, with an aching sorrow about our Lord, our world, ourselves.

So, if only one day of rejoicing is called forth in answer to the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the response is woefully inadequate. If we leave it that way, then the tragedies of Lent are unrelieved and tend to swamp the joy of the resurrection.

It must be clear, however, that we’re not looking for the “happy ending” that makes everything come out all right at the end. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is not that happy ending but a new beginning—and that’s when the fresh life Jesus promised begins for each one of us. We do not grasp the meaning of that new life in a single day or hour. It takes time to let Easter penetrate our souls and find expression in everyday living.

That’s why there is a seven-week Season of Easter. The lectionary readings highlight the dimensions of what is in store. Instead of Old Testament readings about the people of God before Jesus, now we have readings from the Acts of the Apostles proclaiming the faith of the first followers of the Risen Christ. The Gospel lessons tell stories of doubting and faith, for Thomas and the two others on their way to Emmaus, and they rehearse the promises of Jesus about his presence with those he loves beyond all time.

The long Easter Season also gives us time to continue those disciplines we established during Lent—whether they were sacrifices or commitments, giving of ourselves in one way or another in the name of Jesus Christ. Easter people live that way all the time, not just for a season. Being disciples means that we are learners—we learn the way of Jesus, and we acknowledge his living presence as he teaches and leads us.

Nevertheless, it is devilishly easy to scale back Easter. So what might we do to emphasize Easter and make sure it’s here to stay?

Renewal of baptismal commitments is one way to remind ourselves whose we are, and whom we will serve. The Book of Common Worship (1993) offers a “renewal of the Baptismal Covenant for a Congregation” that fills the bill here.

Offerings throughout Easter could include specific commitments by people to carry out ministries within the congregation and to the community.

Additional study opportunities might be presented for times other than Sunday morning, not only for Bible study, but for serious scrutiny of issues of justice and peace around the world and around the corner.

A congregation might be brazen enough to have evening prayer at least once a week through the Season of Easter, bringing the concerns of real life to share with one another and offer to God.

Easter, after all, is the basis of our faith, and the foundation of Christian worship. During the Season of Easter we rejoice in all God’s blessings given in Jesus Christ who has died, but now is risen. This sets the theme for all our worship throughout the year when every Sunday is Easter Sunday.

What happens in your congregation to emphasize Easter as the longest and most important season of the church year?

Sunday, April 17, 2011


When I was but a mere wisp of a lad, sitting with my parents in church, I took particular delight in singing the variety of hymns and the other songs.  My special favorite, which was repeated almost every week, was my favorite, I think, because it was different from all the rest.

“Glory be to the Father…,” we sang on a single note before we moved on to more of a melody.  It didn’t have much of a melody, however, at least not compared to the hymns, but I loved it. (See the Presbyterian Hymnal, Glory to God, No. 580).

Apparently that chant was not true-blue Presbyterian, but something borrowed from the Anglicans.  After what has been called “The Great Liturgical Convergence” following Vatican II (when worship planners and leaders began to learn from counterparts in other denominations and traditions), Presbyterians who saw the value of chant were introducing it into worship.  Now there are wonderful resources in the Presbyterian Psalter and the Book of Common Worship (1993), with Hal Hopson’s Psalm Tones and Refrains in both. 

Of course, there are many other traditions of chant that also present glorious possibilities for worship.  The monks at New Skete, an Orthodox monastery near my home, chant a good deal of their daily office.  Worshipping with them over a period of time, I learned how chant emphasizes the text and encourages prayer and contemplation.  The monks, of course, had lots of practice, chanting their prayers several hours every day. 

Once when I visited a large Lutheran church in Minneapolis, I was wowed by a whole congregation of ordinary people chanting the morning psalms with gusto.  It’s one thing to hear monastics chant, but quite another to be part of a chanting congregation.  That was a revelation, an epiphany—anybody can learn to chant biblical texts like the Psalms!

Chanting is a particular way of singing.  Or, perhaps it’s a particular way of speaking, since part of a chant is usually recited all on one note.  While the pacing of the monotone text is even for each syllable, it can follow the natural pacing of speech sometimes. 

Another distinguishing feature of chant is that unlike hymns, the lyrics of a chant do not require either meter or rhyme.  Prose as well as poetry can be chanted. Biblical texts which are translations from ancient languages, therefore, can more readily be chanted than re-translated or paraphrased into a metrical version.  Chanting throws the field wide open as to what can be sung.

When a text is chanted rather than spoken, the words slow down and are given more attention.  As someone put it, chanting italicizes the words.  Chanting seems to foster meditation and reflection on what is being said.

In my neck of the woods, however, I find few who chant the Psalms.  If the Psalms are part of Sunday worship at all, they are in the “responsive reading” format.  Even Episcopal churches I’ve attended, and some of the Lutheran ones as well, often seem to fall back on this verbal expression of the Psalter.  It’s better than nothing, I suppose, but not as good as could be offered up to God if we put our minds and hearts to it.

Excellent metrical versions of the Psalms are available in hymnals, and are often used as a reasonable substitute.  Yet paraphrases, fresh as they are, do not always carry the full force of the biblical text. At least, the Psalms are sung, and that’s an accomplishment.  Still chanting can be done by a congregation and opens a whole new way to experience the Psalms and make their prayers and praise our own.

It’s not just the Psalms that we could and should be chanting either.  There are other songs in Scripture (called canticles) that deserve being lifted up in chant.  Many of these have become “service music” to be learned by the people and sung in chant for the Sunday liturgy and Daily Prayer services. 

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Snippits of Dialogue

Some parts of the Sunday liturgy are so brief that we breeze right past them without bothering to think about their meaning. Take, for instance, those few lines of dialogue which deserve more attention than they usually get.

The snippets of dialogue at issue appear as a greeting in the Call to Worship at the beginning of the service:
The minister greets the people, saying one of the following:
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,
the love of God,
and the communion of the Holy Spirit
be with you all.
The Lord be with you.
The people answer:
And also with you.
And then the minister continues with sentences of Scripture.

Perhaps to most people it is a perfunctory statement, the liturgical equivalent to “Hi, how are you?” with the standard reply, “Fine, and you?” The liturgical greeting at the start of the service, however, carries much more freight than the customary and ordinary “hello”.

The exchange is between the “presider” and the people at the worship service, and represents a mutual sharing of the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is offered to all by the individual who is presiding, and returned by all those gathered to worship.

This brief transaction, in whatever form, represents nothing less than the acknowledgement of the worshipping community as the Body of Christ. “The Lord be with you,” and “And also with you,” are words that point to the oneness of the assembly in Jesus Christ.

It is not only unity that is announced in these bits of dialogue, it is also the fact that we are called to worship by our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, we come “in the Lord” to praise Almighty God.

Furthermore, the brief conversation between presider and people indicates that worship is the responsibility of the people. I choose the term “presider” rather than “Pastor” or “Leader because it has better connotations than the others. “Pastor” is a professional title, and leaves the impression that the Pastor is the one to make worship happen; “leader” similarly sounds like the one who has the script and will lead the people from one place to another.

“Presider,” on the other hand, brings up images of a governing body, the one presiding enabling the body to do its proper work, i.e., “liturgy” = “the work of the people.” Such a view stays away from performances by pastors or other leaders (including musicians) outranking the prayers and praise of the congregation.

The same dialogue appears at another point in the service, at the beginning of the Great Thanksgiving, the Eucharistic Prayer, this time with additional lines added:
The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give our thanks and praise.

All that has been said of the opening dialogue is true here: the exchange acknowledges the presence of Christ in the midst of the people; speaks of the unity of the body in Christ; points to the sharing of liturgical responsibility on the part of the people as well as the clergy and other leaders.

Even more at the top of the Eucharistic prayer do these emphases need to be made. A parishioner once spoke to me about the Great Thanksgiving as “that thing you do,” and he probably spoke for multitudes. It was thought of as the “priestly prayer,” a performance by the clergy, something in which the pew-sitters had no real part.

This opening dialogue, starting with the first two lines and building with the next four, should draw the people into this core ritual of Christian worship. The Great Thanksgiving is both central and essential, and the snippets of dialogue are important to call attention to the full participation of everyone gathered at the Table.

Does your worship open with one of the greetings? Are they spoken like dialogues, or just plainly read? Is the conversation introducing the Great Thanksgiving spoken with meaning, or simply “gotten through”?

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Musical Bookends

Anyone who goes to church surely understands the importance of music in a service of worship.

For example, let’s talk about those un-sung parts of the service, the Prelude and the Postlude. (Sorry for the pun.) They tend to be overlooked since everyone, except the organist or instrumental musicians, is doing something else while the music is playing.

During the Prelude people are coming in and greeting friends and sharing news and finding their favorite pew and glancing through the order of service and announcements and thinking about a thousand things other than the music they are barely listening to.

During the Postlude folks are slipping hymnals back into the racks and picking up belongings and talking to friends and greeting strangers and looking for a place to get rid of their bulletins and checking their watches and heading for the door and hardly hearing the music being played.

Sure, there are a few people that come early and would like to be left alone so they can listen to the Prelude, and some will stay in their places at the end of the service to hear the Postlude. Often these are the ones who will complain that it’s not fair that musicians put so much practice and preparation into the music fore and aft of a service and it all gets ignored. They’d like the rest of us to hush up and at least let them listen.

Preludes and Postludes have long caused a minor civil war in the ranks of the church. Either they’re considered mere accompaniment to coming and going, and therefore not of much more value than music played over the speakers at Macy’s, or they’re miniature concerts to which we ought give our undivided attention. Most people tend to lean in one direction or the other.

On one hand, both positions are wrong. Prelude and Postlude are not what my kids call “elevator music,” music without any function other than to cover noise. This presumes that pointless music is better than pointless noise, if one can distinguish between the two.

Furthermore, Prelude and Postlude are not simply small concerts to be listened to and appreciated only for the skill of the performer and aesthetics of the sound. They do not, or should not invite passiveness, but encourage participation.

Prelude and Postlude have a larger function, each one performing vital tasks at the beginning and end of each service. Like musical bookends, they bracket everything that happens in between, and are theologically related to the central meaning of worship. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then the Prelude and Postlude are worth a library.

On the other hand, both positions relative to the significance of Preludes and Postludes are right. The Prelude, for example, might be understood to be, as someone once put it, “the music accompanying the entrance dance of the people of God.” We come into worship and the Prelude establishes a mood, an attitude, a context, a feeling that suits the occasion. We are ushered in with sounds that speak more than words ever can, and help us approach our encounter with our Living Lord with open hearts and receptive thoughts.

The Prelude, in fact, is to be meditation music while we are actively doing all those things we do as we enter the worship space. It is “both-and”—both music to listen to reverently, and music to accompany our actions.

The Postlude has a similar function, except that it is not establishing but extending a mood, and perhaps shifting it somewhat. Now the music at the end of the service pulls together feelings and attitudes already expressed in word and song. Whereas the Prelude was to accompany the “entrance dance” of God’s people, the Postlude lifts us on our feet to march forward into the world as Christ’s disciples.

Prelude and Postlude are important, more so than most of us recognize sometimes. Musicians who understand the theological role of music in Lord’s Day worship will provide Preludes and Postludes that appropriately assemble the community at the beginning and propel us on our way at the end. Whether we are conscious of their impact or not, the effect on all who come to worship is great.

How do folks at your church consider the Prelude and Postlude? Are they conscious of their effect on the whole service? On the worshippers?