Ritual is important for worship. We repeat certain actions that give order to worship – ritual. Sometimes we mindlessly worship, out of habit, because the ritual is so familiar. For instance, did you think about your response to the Gospel today? John the Baptist has been beheaded, a gruesome story. I said: “The Gospel of the Lord.” You responded: “Thanks be to God.” Did you mean that – a beheading? That’s ritual, our response to good news, even when it isn’t.
Think of a Eucharist or Mass, in two parts. Part one – for today, is “The Word of God.” Next week is “Holy Communion.” I hope we will understand more clearly the spiritual meaning of the ritual of our worship these two Sundays. Now turn to page 355 in the Book of Common Prayer.
Worship begins when we gather. When does the service of worship begin? Hint: You won’t find it in the Prayer Book. Worship begins when you enter the building – and how we enter depends on what has gone before. We bring along a disposition, an attitude, stress, anxiety, worries – and if we arrive late and harried, we miss preparing ourselves for this important time together with God. We arrive, take our seat and prepare to meet God in silence, in prayer, becoming aware of where God is in your life and your week – preparing to encounter the divine, in God’s reign. These are our first acts of worship, gathering us individually before God, together. We are about to enter a different world – reminded the world out there is not the only world in which we live. Worship takes work on our part – work that opens us to God, to hearing and receiving, and to enable us to respond appropriately to God. We are in rehearsal – preparing ourselves for a day God will bring – the new Jerusalem. In worship we practice, are shaped, and are renewed in God’s reality, so we can live real lives for God in the world.
Worship is personal and communal – a chorus, not a solo. Next we corporately open ourselves to God. A hymn, an exchange between presider and people begin “The Entrance Rite.” The entrance is not a signal to stand if you can, because the clergy enter and worship leaders enter. Together, as individuals, we are a body to enter into God’s presence. Singing together unifies our response to God, and our first prayer is a hymn. The first spoken words form the Opening Acclamation. We acclaim God fully present in the Trinity, and we bless God’s kingdom which is where we are now gathered with God. We say, “Blessed be God,” rather than “Good Morning,” or as in the south where I’m from: “Howya’ doing?” Again, we are in a different world. Our greeting is different. God’s reign is counter to culture, which is flat, non-transcendent, self-oriented, steeped in secular individualism, media, and a lot of people think they are divine. In God’s reign, the world of worship, all are welcome, hearts turn from self toward God, we experience grace, unconditional love; we are free to examine our hearts and confess our sin, and we are given unlimited forgiveness.
We rightly might wonder if we are worthy of all this. So next the Collect for Purity (bottom of pg. 355) reminds us God already knows our inner condition, intentions and thoughts. We ask God to remove all obstacles to God so we can worthily proclaim God’s name and claim on us. The Collect says we are here to be cleansed so we can serve God.
Now we sing or say, a Song of Praise – a Gloria, a canticle, a hymn (top of pg. 356) – our thanksgiving that God knows us intimately, and loves us anyway. In penitential seasons, our praise is more muted. We use the Kyrie or Trisagion – in Advent and Lent.
On page 357, we again exchange brief conversation: The Lord be with you; And also with you. We are not inviting God to be where God already is. We invite each other to be fully present with the divine. A prayer follows, collecting our prayers into one – called the Collect of the Day. This prayer contains scripture themes for the day. Sometimes silence precedes the spoken collect. Personal prayers are offered, silently or aloud, followed by the Collect. I will let you in on a secret – where do we get these? They are in the Prayer Book. Turn to page 231, Proper 10. After we have collected ourselves before God in prayer, now are ready to hear God’s Word to us.
On Sundays we use four scripture readings: an Old Testament reading, a Psalm, New Testament and Gospel. Scripture reveals a God who won’t remain silent – coming to humans from the beginning, revealing salvation’s history in recorded Word and in flesh. A hymn may be sung during a procession of the Gospel into the midst of the people. The hymn reflects the Gospel’s theme. We stand as able to honor the Gospel, and as a sign that God comes to us to reveal His love, not leaving us alone or in the dark. Turn to page 908. In this section of the prayer book are found the readings for Sunday Eucharist. We have three years of readings. We are in Year B now, primarily reading Mark’s Gospel.
Next comes your favorite: nap time, also called the sermon. Sermons point us toward God – applying God’s truth to our place and time. Sermons are not self-help advice, exhortations to get you to act better or scare us, how to have a happier life or get the kids obedient. Sermons that work, point us toward God – who comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. We listen for God’s word to be applied to our lives, in our time – first seeing God’s nature and intent, and then listening for what that says to us now. A sermon is to help us see God more clearly, so we can align our lives more fully with God, and follow Jesus more closely.
We respond by affirming our faith – WE, together. Since the fifth century Christians affirm the faith of the Nicene Creed, an expansion of the ancient baptismal creeds. WE join our voices with the saints who have gone before us. Some people tell me they hear things in the creed they just can’t believe literally. One priest I know crosses his fingers at a certain phrase. The Creed is a corporate affirmation of faith, not a test of orthodoxy or test of beliefs. “We believe,” as a sign of our unity with the church gathered in all times and places, faith in God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit coming to love and be present with us in all areas and all times of our lives. Reaffirming our faith is our YES to God, as church, each week.
The Prayers of the People (page 359) is another response to God’s word – together. We have an outline of basic topics, to guide us if we choose to write our prayers for worship, and we may do that in the future. The Prayer Book gives us six models, several recommended for Sunday Eucharist. We listen, pray as invited silently or aloud. We respond with our concerns for ourselves, others, the church and the world. A Collect sometimes draws the prayers to a close, leading us to the final prayer of the people.
Prayer ends with confession of sin. We acknowledge our bent toward sinfulness – what we do that separates us from God. We can confess freely, because God has forgiven us. We tend to forget. We confess so that we can recall our need to amend our lives, make restitution for injuries and wrongs, and prepare us to forgive others, as God forgives us. The Confession is general, because we personally participate in the corporate sin of society. Sin is seldom an individual undertaking. Absolution frees us from stuff we hold onto that separates us from God and each other. Again, we remember how life is so different in God’s world – a reign of forgiveness, amendment of life and wrongs, and reconciliation. At one with God, we are ready to exchange peace as a sign of God’s work of healing and restoration with us, and now we can be healed and restored with each other. We carry that peace into a broken world, as well as broken relationships. Self-examination and reconciliation are crucial to making Eucharist. Peace is not simply a social time to greet and chat, but a sacrament of God’s work in us – our common need for God’s grace, forgiveness and love.
Confession, absolution and peace are difficult work, especially when we must look someone in the eye we wish we didn’t have to see today – and extend God’s peace to the other. Jesus instructs: If you remember someone has something against you, go be reconciled, then come back and offer your praise and sacrifice of love to God. Now we are ready to make Eucharist.