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”?

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