The Eucharistic Life Part 2: Keeping Silence, Praying the Collect, Proclaiming and Responding to the Word of God. 28.2.18
Last week we reflected on the gathering and penitential rites of the Eucharist. On Sundays and major festivals these are followed by saying or singing the Gloria. Then the mood changes. A brief silence is followed by the Collect, which prepares our thoughts for what is to come. Collects traditionally have a statement, a petition and a doxology. They are remarkably succinct, often ancient, often beautifully-written, and can have great theological depth. Nevertheless, many think that much liturgical writing is over dense, and so we now have a parallel set of simpler, distinct, and shorter “Additional Collects” which are widely used, especially for all-age worship: to be fair they are often vivid and interesting, and are new compositions. Collects are valuable but under-used resources for our daily prayer and reflection.
And so to the Liturgy of the Word. In many churches this is now presented in the form of words projected onto a screen. Screens are now the principal means by which our brains receive written information. Newcomers to church life clearly like this approach. While the introduction of printed texts, including hymns, rather than having a book in our hands still upsets many people, many say that they concentrate better on the texts in this form. Furthermore, in my last parish many found new depths of meaning when the projected text was dramatized so that everyone not only listened to, but also said some of the words. Even so, I think there is merit in simply listening to the words, without a text, read by one voice, provided that it is audible, real well and from a lucid translation.
The readings are for us all to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest. They are food for thought and action during the week ahead. Some still long for the texts to give a clear message from God that will answer the complex challenges which face them and the world. They will lean on every word, a happened in Jesus’ teaching ministry: people came to hear him proclaim God’s good news, with astonishing authority.
But instead of giving simple, clear-cut answers about God, the kingdom suffering, right behaviour, the end of the world, and so on, Jesus gave an often disquieting challenge, returning the question to the person who asked. Thus the rich young man asked about salvation but he was told to look at his way of life. Pilate asked Jesus who he was and was answered with silence. Jesus taught in stories, in signs rather than prose, without clear-cut facts or statements, but always prompting us to think. As John Habgood once said: the lust for certainty in the Bible risks leading us far from its true nature. We may run the risk of abusing scripture, and maybe God as well.
The Bible cannot be read as an ethically consistent document. Instead it tells us about the theological and moral development of a people: to ignore this can lead to justifying inappropriate judgemental, restrictive and even abusive action. This may often be done in the name of the god readers have created for themselves, rather than in the name of the God whose nature is revealed in the life of Christ.
A couple of other points are worth remembering as we listen to and reflect on the word. Firstly translations differ enormously, and that can have quite an influence on what we may draw from a text. And secondly, the Bible is not uniformly consistent or wholesome. Christians have always selected favourite texts, and disregarded other less pleasant and more awkward texts, to support their own views and prejudices.
Furthermore, as we listen and reflect on scripture we need to bear in mind that each of us will interpret scripture in ways which reflect our temperament, as well as the culture, perceptions, prejudice, experiences and interests that have shaped us during our lives. With time, study, using a good commentary, and patience, the bible will gradually reveal more and more of its richness to us. As you listen to scripture you can reflect on how your life, or even your preferred translation affects what you make of it. What kind of blinkers or masks or filters are in place as you reflect on the texts? And if you know what these are read and think again. A final point is that it may be helpful to pray often for a renewed sense of, and openness to the power of God’s word.
Christian preaching is about the annunciation of change, by unfolding scripture, in the light of Jesus. It includes exposition, and reflection, but at its heart are transformation and conversion. It witness to and enacts change, as a result of a conversation between God and God’s people. It should challenge all of us, even though we often reject the idea that change is possible or necessary. Preaching, like all the sacraments, rests on the assumption that our transformation, our conversion is incomplete. As Rowan Williams has put it, the more deeply we are converted, the more hungry we will become, because the more deeply we realise our un-conversion. One preaches in to and out of that situation. And authentic preaching is always done with deep hope, both on the part of the congregation to hear it, and the preacher to give it.
When I visit other churches I sometimes hear intercessors take us on a detailed and personal tour of the world’s trouble spots, sometimes with a hint of political bias as well. It feels as if God is ignorant of life in this world, and ought to answer the prayers in the way the intercessor wants. Robert Runcie once said that during the intercessions it can seem as if God has temporarily lost his omniscience. Let us remember that these are prayers which are offered on behalf of all the gathered people of God at that service.
If I may say so, I think the intercessions we offer on Sundays are good examples of the art. We mention the church community, its leaders and its needs here and abroad, the troubles and joys of the world, those in need: we remember the departed and our own needs, sometimes. They are fed from study of the scripture of the day, and an awareness of the world and the needs of this community. They are rarely too crowded and there are often helpful silences too.
The peace was restored to the Anglican Eucharist in the 20th century after over 400 years. It is still controversial in some places. Richard Giles wrote that when he arrived in a parish as a new vicar he found a notice saying “the peace is not shared in this church”. On his first Sunday he hopefully went down the aisle saying “peace be with you” to be greeted by some with the words “no thank you”, a response not known to the Liturgical Commission. He saw the pews as an excellent defence against being involved in the peace. They enabled all kinds of avoiding action to be made by some people to put off the evil day of encountering fellow Christians. Richard Giles added that instance and persistence soon prevailed and the pews were not long for this world. He also noted that the peace can get out of hand and break the flow of the liturgy, though I don’t think that can be said of us!
The peace is the ritual enactment of the New Testament exhortation to greet one another with a holy kiss (Romans 16.16). It is about the reconciliation that Jesus taught us is absolutely essential as we come to worship. In the early church the peace was offered with a kiss on the lips to everyone. But Anglicans tend to approach this along our via media, using words and a handshake. But there are other ways of expressing it. There is a delightful story of a woman sacristan, dressed in black, at Mass at a church in Rome. When the peace was offered she simply paused at the sacristy door and blew kisses to the whole congregation.
When we off each other a sign of Christ’s peace we are saying with our bodies that we hold dear the person who is our peace. Any barriers between us are being broken down. We are saying that we are now open to change and that this will enable us to leave the Eucharist at its conclusion, able to spread the peace of Christ to those on the bus, in the doctor’s waiting room, the supermarket, the hospital ward and among our family and friends. And we are enabled to do this whatever the situation we find ourselves in. It may be very challenging but that is our call as people of God. Remember that the peace is linked with the penitential rite. It is a time when we visibly express our reconciliation with those around us, some of whom may have been the cause of our need for penitence, or those who are in need of an expression of forgiveness from us. Whatever your view about exchanging the peace, maybe it is worthwhile pondering why we offer it, or find it difficult. And maybe we can think about how we may more full express its meaning in our worship and in our lives. Amen.