Sunday, February 5, 2012

Throwaway Lines (Not)

In drama, so I understand, some written lines of a play are considered “throwaways” – short casual comments or breezy improvisations considered to be of no great effect.

On the other hand, the off-the-cuff comment or the well-placed scripted wisecrack can be the most memorable and meaningful of all that’s said.

Christian worship is itself a drama. Remembering that the audience is God and we, the worshippers, are the actors, we need to be conscious of those parts of our performances before the Almighty that unfortunately sometimes get treated as “throwaway lines”.

The first brief dialogue to consider appears early in the service:

The Lord be with you.
The people answer:
And also with you.

At the announcements, many clergy start with a bare “Good morning,” and get the congregational reply in kind. This little nine-word dialogue is too often uttered in much the same way--just a liturgical language way of saying “good morning.”

Yet, it is much more. “The Lord be with you/And also with you” acknowledges a relationship established by the Risen Christ. In addition to being a blessing given and received, the community is shown to be bonded together by the Lord.

This thought continues in the dialogue that initiates the Greeting of Peace:

The peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.
And also with you.

It is also continued in the personal greetings shared among the people of the congregation as they celebrate the shared gift of the Peace of Christ.

For Protestants, this ritual is beset with confusion. Somehow we keep getting it mixed up with saying “Hi!” to our friends. The Greeting of Peace is a liturgical action, loaded with theological meaning recalling the greeting of peace from Christ to his followers (e.g., Luke 24.36).

The reading of Scripture is essential to Christian worship on the Lord’s Day. Each passage read concludes with another small dialogue that is often glossed over:

The Word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

The congregation acknowledges receipt of the message of Scripture as coming from God. This is not to be tossed aside glibly, but to be affirmed with enthusiasm and a hearty gratitude.

The same response follows a reading from the Old Testament or Epistle, emphasizing that the Word of the Lord is spoken in and through the entire Bible. There is an integrity of the Word that can be trusted throughout the biblical writings.

This is also true when it comes to the reading of the Gospels, although the dialogues point to a very different expression of the Word of the Lord. Here we find these lines:

The Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to… .
Glory to you, O Lord.
At the conclusion of the Gospel:
The Gospel of the Lord.
Praise to you, O Christ.

The people’s response is not a general thanksgiving, but a word of praise addressed directly to the Lord. The reading of the Gospel introduces in person, often in Jesus’ own words, the Lord himself—and so we greet him before the reading with, “Glory to you, O Lord,” and again following the reading, “Praise to you, O Christ.”

If there is any understanding of “the real presence of Christ” in our worship, this is one place that we express such a thought. It is not just the words of Scripture that reveal God, but when the Gospels are read, it is the Word of God, Christ himself, who becomes One among us.

The other place that we become particularly conscious of Christ present with us is in the Eucharist, and introducing that, we find a somewhat longer dialogue:

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.

These lines have a long history, being found in the earliest liturgies of the church. The “lifting of the hearts” signals the in-depth involvement of every person as all look God-ward in prayer. The last two lines stress that, beyond a doubt, the prayers to be offered at the Table are understood as the people’s prayers, even if spoken by a single person.

There are two more small conversations that take place in the Eucharist:

In giving the bread:
The body of Christ, given for you. Amen.
In giving the cup:
The blood of Christ, shed for you. Amen.

These little verbal transactions, of course, accompany the giving and receiving of the body and blood of Christ. These are holy moments, incredibly brief and fleeting moments when time as we know it stands still and God’s own time, eternal time, takes over. These brief words announce Eternity intersecting the times of our loves.

The response is “Amen,” a response said many times throughout Christian worship. As throwaway lines go, this single word is thrown away more often, if, indeed, it is even said. “Amen” is a one-word confession of faith, a proclamation of loyalty to the Lord, an announcement of personal commitment, always to be full-voiced and joyous.

The overall effect of these bits of liturgical dialogue is to set the standard for worship as the work of the people in the presence of God.

Are there other “throwaway lines” you hear in worship too important to miss?

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