Sunday, February 12, 2012

Turn On the Light

In the olden days when I first ventured forth in liturgical leadership, the lectern/pulpit in our church had mounted upon it a nice little lamp with a curved shade over it. The very first thing that one did on approaching reading Scripture or preaching, was to turn on the light.

In many churches, as far as I know, Scripture was read and sermons preached without introductory prayer. Sermons were followed, however, with a prayer pleading for God’s after-the-fact blessing of the message proclaimed.

Preachers often would offer for all to hear a prayer for blessing prior to starting the sermon: “May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in Thy sight, O Lord, my Strength and my Redeemer.”

All that was fairly standard procedure.

Somewhere between then and now another "light" was turned on, the Prayer for Illumination was introduced and placed before the Scripture-sermon process was launched.

For those in the Reformed Tradition, it was an obvious necessity. How could anyone understand what God was saying through the words of the Bible without the blessing and enlightenment of the Spirit? Simply not possible. So, such a prayer for the gift of illumination to be bestowed by the Holy Spirit seemed to be a basic requirement. Otherwise no one would ever get anything at all out of the reading of the text or the sermon based on it.

The use of this Prayer for Illumination is rooted clearly in Calvin, specifically in his Institutes. For example in this passage:
…Accordingly to make his disciples capable of heavenly wisdom, Christ promised them "the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive," (John 14:17). And he assigns it to him, as his proper office, to bring to remembrance the things which he had verbally taught; for in vain were light offered to the blind, did not that Spirit of understanding open the intellectual eye; so that he himself may be properly termed the key by which the treasures of the heavenly kingdom are unlocked, and his illumination, the eye of the mind by which we are enabled to see: hence Paul so highly commends the ministry of the Spirit (2Cor. 3: 6), since teachers would cry aloud to no purpose, did not Christ, the internal teacher, by means of his Spirit, draw to himself those who are given him of the Father…. (Institutes 3.1.4)

Whether or not to have a Prayer for Illumination is not a question to be asked, because it’s clear that it really isn’t optional. Nevertheless, it is easily glossed over and not given great value in the larger scheme of a service. And yet it is of enormous importance.

Consider this: there is a parallel prayer that comes late in the service that would never be neglected. It goes something like this:
Gracious God,
pour out your Holy Spirit upon us
and upon these your gifts of bread and wine,
that the bread we break
and the cup we bless
may be the communion of the body and blood of Christ.
By your Spirit make us one with Christ,
that we may be one with all who share this feast,
united in ministry in every place.
As this bread is Christ's body for us,
send us out to be the body of Christ in the world.
It’s the invoking of the Holy Spirit to help us recognize the presence of Christ in the meal and to nourish the human spirit—this is known as the epiclesis or Invocation.

In similar fashion, the Prayer for Illumination is also an invocation, a calling down of the Spirit to help us understand and appropriate the Word who is presented in the words of the Bible and the preached message. Therefore, the two main parts of the Lord’s Day worship experience, the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Sacrament, have their own Invocation.

Without the Prayer for Illumination, however, the Scripture and sermon become mere intellectual exercises at best, and emotional blather at worst. With this prayer the congregation acknowledges its need for divine assistance, not just in understanding what the message is all about, but in appropriating that message from God in the lives of everyone present.

The Prayer for Illumination is a prayer from the congregation, and should be a unison prayer, not recited solo on behalf of all, certainly not by the clergy. Countless models are available not only in the Book of Common Worship and other worship books, but also home-made versions crafted by members of congregations.

Does your Sunday service have a Prayer for Illumination before the reading of the Scriptures? Or is there one only before the sermon? Or is there one at all?

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