In the Liturgy of the Palms for Palm Sunday, there is an evocative line which asks that we “enter with joy upon the contemplation of these mighty acts.” The liturgy anticipates all that will unfold and enfold us in that week as we enter the reality of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. That entrance into the mystery of the deepest Christian realities unfolds not only in Holy Week but in every gathering around the Lord’s Table. In this series of essays, I will look at the basics of our liturgical life, step-by-step, and unpack what we do together in Remembrance each and every week in some greater detail.
What Is Worship?
Glory Be to God on High
The Holy Gospel
A Bit about a Creed and More about Doctrine
“Let Us Pray for the Whole State of Christ’s Church and the World”
“Ye Who Do Truly and Earnestly Repent …”
“Passing All Understanding: The Peace of God”
What Is Worship?
It is helpful, I think, before we begin to look at each phase of the liturgy over the next few weeks to start with that most basic question — what is worship? Ultimately, worship is an expression of our desire to be united with Christ. In Baptism and the Eucharist we are given the most fleeting of glimpses of the deepest permanent reality — that we are at one with Christ. All we can do in worship is give thanks — to lay ourselves at the foot of the throne of grace and offer all that we are.
Worship is not meant to be a didactic exercise by which we talk about justice, or ourselves, or even about God — it is designed to clothe us in the fullness of Christ and by doing so empower us to proclaim justice, joy, and hope at every turn of our lives and beyond. It is an encounter with the living God who longs to live in, with, and through us.
This encounter with Christ takes place within the gathered Body. It takes place within the shared hopes, memories, and aspirations of a people. It takes place within and beyond history. It takes place before and after death. It is always being offered. It takes the whole of the Body of the Church to begin to express our thanks for the gift offered in Christ — it takes the whole Body of the Church with one voice offering thanks and receiving new hope.
It trains us to see all of Creation and one another in the light of God’s ideal — in the light of God’s longing that we all may be one in him.
Our shared worship language, in the Book of Common Prayer, is the expression of our communities’ many different hopes over the centuries. It articulates the shared knowledge and hope that we are, by fits and starts, through our shared history and identity, being brought to perfection in Christ — through sharing in the story of Christ. When we walk from the Font to the Altar, we are becoming that story. We are becoming one with that self-offering so that we can be likewise to the world.
This is not the product of an instant but is the result of a lifetime of worship that so changes us that we are a true community — not for the sake of getting along but for the sake of Christ. This necessarily demands a discipline on our part and a willingness to come and be transformed. The source of unity we have, as a worshiping body of the Anglican tradition, is the Book of Common Prayer. It is our means of offering the praises of Christ that we have offered through the centuries and beyond. It is our theological affirmation as a whole gathered Church beyond time and place — it is the story within the Story that gives us a sense of place and purpose.
The Book of Common Prayer is the collected longing and debated theological reckoning of this Church. It is the expression of the movement of the Holy Spirit across our history that speaks to and through us to this day. It is designed to change us. The purpose of worship is the adoration of God. A lifetime of shared adoration will change us — it is one of the true hopes that the Church offers.
Many will hear me speak of obeying the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer. The rubrics are the sometimes annoying italics in the book that tell us what to do and not do. They reflect the wisdom of the ages and, in some ways, protect the laity from over-creative clergy. I do not view my role as one of incessant creativity for the sake of experimentation. I understand us, as a community to be stewards of mystery. We have been handed a holy gift in our liturgical life and my hope is that as we explore its spiritual depth and meaning, we will be drawn deeper, with joy, into the contemplation of these mighty acts that we share in together.
The Book of Common Prayer has two “rites.” Rite I is the more formal feeling, using more traditional language, with Rite II using more modern idiom and expression. The two, however, have the same basic structure and are roughly divided into the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Table. In older forms, these two parts were called the Mass of the Catechumens (those being instructed for Baptism) and the Mass of the Faithful (the consecration and receiving of Communion for Baptized believers). In ancient liturgical practice, those who had not been Baptized would leave at about the spot where our Prayers of the People are now and go out to prepare a feast for the whole community to enjoy while the baptized received Communion — they looked forward to the day when they too would take part in the holiest mysteries of the faith while other newly welcomed members of the community would oversee the joyful celebrations that came at the end of the liturgy.
The entrance rite has one basic purpose: to prepare the People of God to encounter the Word of God revealed in Scripture and the Breaking of Bread. If you remember the Baptismal Covenant, these are the basic markers of Christian duty and proficiency — that we will “continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers.” So when we gather on a Sunday it is not with a secular purpose such as companionship, social activism, or entertainment (though all of these may mark some parts of the life of a joyful community) — we gather to be and to ever-become the holy people of God.
When we enter, it is generally to a hymn of praise in procession. Those hymns (like all the hymns in any service) are carefully chosen to illustrate or elaborate upon the themes we will hear in Scripture that day. For example, in last week’s marking of the Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels, the first hymn, “Christ, the fair glory of the holy angels,” specifically mentioned the Archangels Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael and notes ways in which angels might intercede for us here on Earth.
When the Altar Party (Celebrant, Deacon, and Sub-Deacon) arrive at the Altar, the Prayer Book specifies that after a hymn, psalm, or anthem, “The people standing, the Celebrant says ‘Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.’” This may seem an abrupt beginning — some might expect (as one certainly finds in other traditions) a more generic and secular (and maybe warmer) welcome with some announcements and housekeeping notes. Yet, the Prayer Book gives us the clear reminder that we gather together to say not “Hello, my name is Robert” or the like, but to bless God’s holy name and to be drawn into the mystery of God with us.
That acclamation, in the manner of Eastern liturgies and Jewish prayers (Blessed be God) is fleshed out with the Christian affirmation that God is Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). During other seasons, other opening lines may be used, but the first lines after our arrival at the Altar are always a salutation that declares the glory of the one around whom we gather and in whose name we are made one.
Following that opening acclamation comes the Collect for Purity. This is reminiscent of Psalm 51. It has been used for centuries (its use is documented to at least the 9th century) as a preparatory prayer by priests as they prepare to come to the Altar. The Book of Common Prayer puts that prayer at the beginning of the liturgy, so that the Celebrant is saying it not just for herself but for the gathered priesthood of all believers as we all come to the Altar together.
In Rite I, to my delight, the use of the Summary of the Law (Thou shalt love the Lord thy God … Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself) is retained and comes next. It is an unfortunate omission in Rite II. I believe that now more than ever we need the simple reminder that Christ himself has declared that loving God and loving neighbor are the beating heart of a Christian community.
Incense is used at 11:15 because, as a living link with Christian and Jewish antiquity, it assures us that we believe as the early Christians believed, that when we gather together in His Name, God is in our midst, that we do not merely remember a dead man but have Communion with a living eternal King, that we do not merely long for a heaven that is “up yonder” or “in the sweet by and by” but adore an Eternal Lord who is “right here and now.” In antiquity, royalty and the aristocracy had incense burned before them on all public occasions. If you wished to honor a friend, you burned incense when he visited you. Incense was burned in temples and all places of public and private worship in honor of the God who was to visit the temple. It adds to our service an atmosphere of mystery — and well it might. For it signifies an invasion of the Eternal into time, of the Infinite All Holy into the midst of His people.
Next we will move into the next steps of the liturgy — the Kyrie and the Gloria.
Glory Be to God on High
This week we focus on two particular moments in the liturgy — the Kyrie and the Gloria. Kyrie simply means “Lord have mercy.” It has a penitential feel but is, in reality, a kind of praise that, while less exuberant and ecstatic than the Gloria, still is an acclamation of thanksgiving more than an imploring for forgiveness of sin. The Kyrie is required to be said or sung in Rite I and is an option in Rite II (an option we will use in Advent and Lent).
The root of the Kyrie may be found in pagan antiquity when, at the entrance of the emperor, the gathered crowds might call out “have mercy,” which had the quality of asking that attention be paid to the plight of the supplicant. People would also ask the gods for their intercession by adding “eleison” (upon us). The phrase is found with great regularity in the Psalms as well. The Kyrie litany came into wider liturgical use in the 4th century. It has been used both at the beginning of the liturgy in history as well as nearer the Prayers of the People.
Now it is used both in a penitential way (and is part of our penitential rites) and as a hymn of praise (if somewhat more somber). It is a good reminder when used at the beginning of the liturgy that we gather by and through the mercy of a God who loves us.
Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.
If the Kyrie is a subdued form of praise, the Gloria is an ecstatic one.
The Gloria is sometimes called the Angelic Hymn in early sources as it echoes the declaration of the angels at the birth of Jesus, “Glory to God in the highest and peace to his people on Earth.” Each liturgy is, in some ways, the celebration of Jesus coming among us anew both in Bread and Wine and in the gathered community, so it seems appropriate for us to echo that heavenly song of praise. At the 9 and 11:15 a.m. services we sing the Gloria, which seems appropriate, given that saying it sometimes feels like I might imagine gathering a group together to say the National Anthem might feel.
The Gloria’s use in the liturgy is ancient and hearkens back to a time when verses of Scripture were used as hymns in their own right. Its use is traced back to at least the 4th century. Originally, it was predominantly used on major feast days as a hymn of praise (some traditions still use another hymn called the Te Deum similarly at the end of major feast days, using two thuribles and exuberant singing to mark the great joy of the day).
In around the 11th century we see the use of the Gloria move from being included only on major feasts (and generally only when a bishop was present) to wider and more regular use. A look at the theology of the Gloria could almost be a class in and of itself. Suffice it to say, there may be no better way to enter the Presence of the Holy One than to begin with this hymn of praise and thanks. We come with reverence, joy, and awe as we gather to hear the Word and come to the Table.
Glory to God in the highest,
and peace to his people on earth.
Lord God, heavenly King,
almighty God and Father,
we worship you, we give you thanks,
we praise you for your glory.
Lord Jesus Christ, only Son of the Father,
Lord God, Lamb of God,
you take away the sin of the world:
have mercy on us;
you are seated at the right hand of the Father:
receive our prayer.
For you alone are the Holy One,
you alone are the Lord,
you alone are the Most High,
with the Holy Spirit,
in the glory of God the Father. Amen.
Next we will look at the Collect (prayers) and the reading of Scripture in the liturgy.
This week we come to the part of the service which has the greatest variability from week to week (other than hymns) — the collect and readings. The collect and readings are selected according to two calendars. Each week in the year is marked by a “Proper.” The Propers mark where we are in the liturgical calendar and are the readings and prayers for a given day. For example, one might refer to the Propers for All Saints or the Propers for the fifth Sunday after Pentecost. These Propers refer to which Sunday we are marking and which particular feast (if any) we might be celebrating on a given day.
While the prayers for any given Sunday or feast will be the same from year to year, the readings are based on a three year cycle called a lectionary. We use something called the Revised Common Lectionary, which is shared by a number of denominations. It is divided into years A, B, and C, and the new church year starts on the first Sunday of Advent (we are currently in year C).
All of this might sound rather drab and pedestrian — it takes on a rather more poetic meaning when we consider that the forces which guide and mark our time are the very elements of the cosmos. The sun and moon, as if placed for the very purpose, are integral parts of shaping our worship of the one who laid the foundations of the firmament. When we come to a Sunday we mark the rising of the life of the Son — we mark not just a new day but a new Dawning by which the mantle of darkness has been pulled back so that the true light which lightens everyone may be seen, worshiped, and followed.
The cosmic order — the movement of vast bodies of the heavens — shapes our time. We who gather as the Church do so in an ancient pattern of sacred time. We come as a people who see the lengthening shadows or the breaking of clear light and see in them not only the movement of hard rocks coursing through the expanse of space and balls of flaming gas alight by chance but also the movement of the One who sets our souls ablaze — the one who softens our hearts that we may love and be loved.
You will find, over the years, the shape of the Christian year and Christian life become suffused with sacred meaning through attentive participation in the quotidian stuff of daily and yearly cycles of feasts and fasts. We anticipate the joys of Easter and, perhaps, come to relish the relative quiet of Lent. We remember the hymns that shake our soul (like Lift High the Cross on Holy Cross Day) and our hearts begin to beat with the rhythm of the Church’s year.
Each week, the readings are not selected by happenstance but because they illuminate some aspects of Christian life and of the journey of Christ and the Church. For example, we will soon see and hear in Advent that, despite the churlish impositions of consumer culture, Advent has a penitential quality that marks it not just as a season of waiting and anticipation (or of shopping and stress) but of repentance and preparation for our souls to receive the gift of God in Christ. The readings and prayers of each day are meant to draw us into the mysteries of faith in particular ways.
The collects on Sundays are the prayers that lay out the themes and intercessions of the day. The word “collect” is a strange one for a prayer (or so it has always seemed to me). I have heard often that it indicates that the themes and intentions of the day are “collected” in it — thus the word. Another likely origin seems to be that it was said at the collecting up of the people at the start of mass — medieval liturgies were not the orderly affairs of which we Episcopalians are so fond, and a firm and official gathering and focusing moment was needed — which may have been the collect.
A collect is always a prayer but a prayer is not always a collect. Collects have evolved to have a distinct form (rather like a haiku in their specificity). The collect begins with a sort of preamble, then a petition, and then a conclusion or request for mediation. Many of the collects we use on Sundays are centuries old — some are as ancient as the earliest days of the Church.
These prayers are carefully constructed and are the result of deep theological reflection and long use in community. An example of this attention and long use may be seen in the first collect of the Church year — the collect for the First Sunday of Advent. That collect reads:
Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
This collect was composed for the 1549 Book of Common Prayer and is based on verse 12 of Romans 13 — many of the collects are reflections on passages of Scripture. This particular collect is repeated each day at Morning Prayer through the season of Advent and is a summary of the hope and charge of Advent. Note that it does not ask for grace to get our tree up in time nor for grace to endure the political ramblings of gin-sodden aunties — but grace to live in such a way as to be drawn into immortal life by the one who comes to judge the living and the dead. Its message will be reinforced, amplified, and examined in the readings throughout Advent.
The succinctness and rhythm of the collects as they are now rendered is a particular gift of Anglicanism (of which the Episcopal Church is the American iteration). They reflect the poetic best of the English language and the longings of English Christianity given form in the cadence and elegance of some of the strongest writers of that language.
Perhaps the greatest gift of the liturgical calendar is that it gives us a sense that the rhythms of this life — of the life we live together as a community (and perhaps just as fellow humans) — has an inherent dignity and deserves contemplation as the sacred gift that it is. The Church marks, hallows, and sanctifies that time because it is the greatest gift that we have — it is a form of stewardship in the best sense of that word to see and know time as a holy gift. It gives us a sense that Christianity is, perhaps, at its most life-giving when it is focusing us on holy living — on what this life means — rather than just getting us “saved” and ready for the next one.
The Holy Gospel
Having looked at the lectionary (the calendar of readings) last week, we now come to the reading of the Gospel. You will note that a Gospel procession forms at the 9 and 11:15 services and brings the Gospel out to the center of the congregation for the deacon to proclaim it (and occasionally sing it). As she or he announces the Gospel, the deacon is busily crossing — with the right thumb, thrice: over the forehead, over the lips, over the chest — over the mind, that it might be read with understanding, over the voice, that it might read decently and well, over the heart, that the words may be taken within and she or he be kindled to love.
The people repeat this very ancient three-fold crossing with their thumbs as well.
All of this action — processing, sometimes censing, crossing, and the like — is not done for any other book because we are not gathering around a book. We are gathering around Christ made present in the Word — it is as if we are gathered in orbit around Christ as he teaches us to love him and one another.
Word and Sacrament are the chief means that we encounter Christ — we do so also in the life and witness of the gathered community, but that community is forged, formed, and fed by these two chief manifestations of Christ so that we may be one with him and be him to the world. So we give weight and dignity to the proclamation of the Gospel because it is the Living Word. We are not lifting up a textbook about Jesus — we are lifting up the very life of Christ — we come not to learn about Jesus but to be one with Jesus.
Have you ever spent time with a loved one that is rich, poignant, suffused with love, and maybe even tinged with that recognition that such times are fleeting? Yet, you may spend time with that same person and have it be a thing of absolutely mundane superficialities and mindless chatter. You may be around her or him for long hours and just have those glimpses of deeper relationship. In many ways, liturgy is that time when we gather in the Presence of One who is calling us to richer, deeper engagement with him. So we do not just saunter in, toss a book on the table, and have a tidy chat about the Prince of Peace and Lord of Lords.
We gather before the throne of grace with attention, and — like Mary anointing Jesus’ feet with oil — we perform acts of love and service which seem wasteful to some, excessive to others, or just unnecessary. So we read the Gospel — we proclaim the Gospel — with rather more dignity than we might muster for Sports Illustrated.
It may be helpful to think a bit more about what Scripture is and is not. Scriptures were gathered to be used by the community in the context of our liturgical life.
Reading Scripture alone is a relatively modern concept. The early Christians couldn’t take a Bible home, close their bedroom door, and do personal meditations on the Word. The Scriptures were meant to be read and heard in the context of the gathered assembly of the people. The scriptures were gathered by the Council of Nicaea into one collection of books which we know as the Bible so as to address a few significant challenges in the early Church. Early Christians lacked consensus about which books they should read in the liturgy, and multiple theological questions were being navigated, in particular the shape of the Trinity. This second challenge was addressed in the development of the Nicene Creed.
I am certainly not discouraging your own study of the Bible — but that study is not done for your edification alone but in the context of a community of fellow-hearers and learners so that we can learn and grow together into the likeness of Christ. Scripture is not revelation in and of itself — it guides us toward the revelation of the Son of God.
Scripture is not for your personal edification but for our communal transformation. A friend of mine says, “The sacred nature of the Bible is not in what the text says, but in what it does.”
Let’s unpack that a bit. Scripture is holy because it can be holy food for holy people — it can change us in holy ways if we will let it. However, it can be used demonically and diabolically as well. It is holy when we are using it in holy ways — it was put together for the sole purpose that we might be brought, bit by bit, into a closer walk with Jesus. It is there for us to be pilgrims of the Way.
Think of the passage from Acts 8: 26–40 — the story of the Ethiopian and Philip. The Ethiopian is traveling along and reading from Isaiah, and Philip asks him, “Do you understand what you are reading?” The Ethiopian replies, “How can I, unless someone explains it to me?” Then, Scripture says, “… Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.” We read and learn Scripture together and bear witness to the good news about Jesus.
Scripture is not a solitary pursuit — it is a way for us to meet Jesus. We will meet him in other ways too — but we are trained for the seeing and hearing of the promises of Christ through the window of the sacred text. Scripture is the poetry of the Incarnation — it is the weaving of multiple strands of wisdom, tradition, and story together to illustrate that God longs to be with us and does so in multiple, manifold, and multivalent ways culminating in the coming of Jesus among us. Yet there is one more step to the story — it is our response to hearing the Word, taking the Bread, and being the Body.
The most dangerous assumption we can make is that the story is done when that holy book closes. The story begins freshly with each hearing because the Spirit is still speaking. It is the story of the Gift of God given to the People of God.
How we respond will determine just how holy a thing we have been given.
Now we come to the point in the liturgy, having heard the Gospel, when we invite someone into the pulpit to offer some insight into the transformation made possible and offered in the Gospel. This is the only reason for preaching. It is not about elucidation, edification, or enlightenment — it is about transformation. You may note that over and over in the Gospels, the stories are not descriptions of Jesus or even descriptions of events in his life. The Gospels, over and over again, are stories of people changed by the encounter with Christ.
The Rich Young Ruler, Lazarus, the disciples, the blind, demoniacs, lepers, and many more discovered who Jesus was — each of these stories offers us the distinct possibility that to see and to be seen by Jesus is to be changed.
So the preacher is given the task of walking us through the decisive promise given to us in the Gospel. The Gospels — and preaching — are a witness to and an enactment of Christian change. Whether the sermon is challenging us to action, repentance, giving, praying, loving, or more, the sermon is not offered for disembodied contemplation but for remaking us in the image of the one who offers us abundant life. The preacher notes for us the change that unfolds in the Gospel and then invites us to become part of the story too.
The preaching task has been, for many decades either divorced from personal experience and testimony — especially within the Episcopal Church — or so reliant on personal narrative that it becomes hard to fathom about whom the sermon is being given. They sometimes seem exercises in dry analysis or, more dreadfully, in therapeutic acting out.
Yet, much of a sermon’s place and power derives from the preacher’s ability to connect the transformation of those whom Jesus met with the transformation the preacher has experienced when he or she met Jesus. It is witnessing. It is not only a testimony of some past occurrence though.
Crucially, it is a witness to an abiding hunger to be further transformed — to be drawn up and in to the holiness of Christ’s enduring compassion. Preachers often preach out of a need they themselves have — when they can connect that longing and need for transformation and growth with the longing of their community, then the Holy Spirit may make something of that moment and use it to draw us into a deeper union and connection in and with Christ.
So the preacher is tasked with discerning his or her need and hope, the community’s need and hope, and what the Spirit is doing in the community at any given time. It’s a delicate blend of insights in which we look to the Gospel and ask questions. What change is happening in the story? Why is Jesus drawing this out of these people in the story? Is this something I need, see, or long for in my life? How can I articulate this news in such a way that it can be Good News? How can we hear and respond to this as a community?
Yet all of these questions really emerge from one. Each sermon is really an attempt to offer a take on the question, “Who do you say that I am?” This is the challenge Jesus offers each week — and when we find an answer together we are changed, because who we say Jesus is also says something about who we long to be.
Our society is one that is hyper-individualized and networked rather than organized. The cultural trends are such that any church that is simply an institution that one signs up for is bound for failure. The same organizations that once represented the backbone of civic society (such as clubs, fraternities, civic organizations, boards) are facing similar decline. How many people are flocking to join the Elks? Sure they do great work and have a storied history, and yet they are on the downward slope of decline.
Most fraternal organizations have seen a decline of a third of their membership or more, while others, including the International Order of Odd Fellows, have seen a membership decline of almost 98% in the past century. Yes, the Church is not the Elks Club, but it is facing the same cultural headwinds that these sorts of organizations face.
Our task is in some ways much simpler — we have to rediscover our identity as a people who are always seeking the answer to the question, “Who do you say that I am?” Preaching offers the space and time for us to explore different ways of approaching that question.
The structural, programmatic, and institutional answers to challenges in the Church will be almost irrelevant (or at least as relevant as choosing the kind of marble for a tombstone) without serious work as a community of faith to offer a compelling answer for ourselves and for the wider world about our belief in the transforming person and power of Christ in our individual and common life.
Who do we, as a community and as individual believers, say Jesus is?
How we answer that question will shape, guide, and direct mission and ministry. How is he reaching out to us (and us to him)? Who is he calling us to reach out to as his Body? Where is he leading that we fear to follow? More important than what God is calling us to do is who God is calling us to be as a people formed in the image of Christ. How do we see ourselves fitting into the mosaic image of Christ in which each piece helps form an icon of Christ’s living Presence in the Body?
These are the kinds of transformations at the heart of the Gospel that the preacher works to illuminate — transformations rooted in Jesus’ question. You may not be asked to preach on it, but Jesus is asking you too — “Who do you say that I am?”
A Bit about a Creed and More about Doctrine
The sermon just completed, now comes the time for necessary correctives to be made — the Creed. This week is an overview as to why a Creed might matter; we will do a section-by-section creedal perambulation next week.
Some wonder why this Creed, why every week, and what in the world does it all mean. The Nicene Creed comes to us out of Byzantine labors to quell raging theological battles that were, quite literally, tearing a fledgling Church (though large it was new and a bit gangly — think of an unstable young giraffe) and an empire apart. Fissures and tears were emerging as rapid growth and state endorsement caused ripples still felt to this day.
The first line of the Creed is simple enough — it hearkens back to the simpler monotheistic acclamation of Jewish worship, the Shema (“Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one”). Much of the Creed builds upon the Shema and is an expansion on the Trinitarian salutation we hear in 2 Corinthians 13:14 (“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all”). Our worship, as believers in Christ with spiritually Jewish ancestry, builds upon the reception and perception of God that the Jewish people proclaimed by recognizing the three persons of the Trinity as One God. The Creed fleshes out the relationship between the persons of the Trinity and us.
If you can imagine it — think of yourself kneeling in front of the three person of the Trinity as they each exchange looks of divine mercy. Keep kneeling — you hear the words of the Creed echoing around you. We believe in one God. We believe in Jesus Christ. We believe in the Holy Spirit. This movement of triune Love has moved over creation — and it moves over us.
As you kneel there, the Trinity — One God — places a crown upon your head and calls you the beloved of God. For we believe in one Baptism into a Kingdom without end to which we are heirs. The Creed is a hymn of promise, for it is a hymn to the eternal relationship of God from God, Light from Light, and true God from true God — and of God with us. It is doctrine at its best — doctrine which presents us with the theological balance that has remained (relatively) stable for generations.
Doctrine is not about right answers — it is about right relationships. Doctrine is that which encodes our relationship with the Triune God and with one another. It is our ultimate guarantee of dignity, for it lays out our compact as the beloved of God. Sound doctrine defends and defines the fullness of human nature and worth. Without it, we only have human perception to rely upon, which too quickly turns to manipulation and capitulation.
It takes so little to get far off track — theologically and otherwise. When I worked for Brooks Brothers, one of my annoyances as a manager was that it was so often necessary to hound my employees (especially salespeople eager to make a sale) to charge alteration fees. Eight dollars for a pair of trousers to be hemmed was not terribly much — and it seemed an easy thing to promise “free” (complimentary is really the better word) alterations to a customer. So week after week, month after month, those fees would not get charged. It added up — and it added up to being a critical threat to the survival of that store. The fees were more than the losses of the business. Proper collection of those fees was going to mean the difference between closing the store (and losing quite a few jobs) or staying open and continuing to build on our successes. So we collected the fees. We did so unapologetically because we knew that our livelihood and our continued success depended on it — whether we found it pleasurable or not.
A persistent though small error in accounting will bankrupt a company.
Now, not to put too fine a point on it — but in some ways the Creed is our weekly audit. It ensures that we are on track week by week. It takes only a small disjoint in our theological underpinnings before we have upset the balance such that we are really no longer preaching the Gospel much any more but some distorted vision of God that affirms what we’d like to have affirmed or condemns those we would like to have condemned without changing or challenging us much at all.
Salespeople, eager to make a sale, will pitch a doctrine-free, non-Creedal, fresh faith that they found in the mirror that morning and think that you should buy — yet the Creed gives us a defense against precisely this kind of dangerous, unmoored spirituality which risks hearts, souls, and minds. So week after week we get a theological primer of sorts to ensure that, despite our individual struggle with the material, we are still getting the weekly quiz.
The most pressing and heartbreaking pastoral concerns are ultimately theological and doctrinal questions: When someone asks us, “What happens when my mother dies?” When someone asks us, “Why is this happening?” When someone asks us, “Why should I baptize my child?” When someone asks us, “Am I a bad person for seeking a divorce from my abusive spouse?” When someone asks us, “How can you welcome gay folks?”
There are innumerable questions, and there are those hard stories we all hear that challenge our faith.
When a gay teen is beaten in the name of religion, when our fellow men and women are tortured in our name, when women are profoundly mistreated, when poverty is allowed to grow unchecked and unquestioned, when refugees are threatened and immigrants turned away — when these and countless other sins abound, the only answer we have is sound doctrine.
When each and every one of those questions comes, we are able to name the simple truth that as God has lifted humanity into eternity — according to his mercy — so we are called to lift our fellow men and women out of despair — in response to the mercy shown to us. That is the doctrine of the Incarnation — and it has not always been agreed upon but is now enshrined in the Creed. This is the kind of teaching that throws down the mighty from their seats —and we need believers who can offer profoundly grounded wisdom — wisdom heard week by week, year by year, from generation to generation.
When someone faces deep, heartbreaking questions, the only thing we have to rely upon is the faith we have received — that faith that is the product of the movement of the Holy Spirit over generations of believers and is ours to offer. Yet, we have to work to understand what it is we are offering. Just as we might agree that faith without works is dead, faith without inquiry, study, reflection, and intellectual engagement (without doctrine) is just as dead.
Before I begin to dive into the Creed’s place in the liturgy I would like to encourage you all to do something. Take a moment and click here — it is Arvo Pärt’s Berliner Messe Credo. It is one of many, many musical settings of the Nicene Creed. I encourage listening to it and imagining it as a musical companion to the Gloria we sing in the Eucharist or to any other song of praise that we sing with energy (on most Sundays).
The Nicene Creed, while without a fixed liturgical spot, has been part of the liturgy for about 1,000 years. Developed in 325 and refined through ecumenical councils, it was an attempt not only to answer any number of heresies but to articulate — to put some words to — our relationship with God upon which Christians everywhere could agree. I would offer that it is not about agreeing so much as it is aspiring to believe.
It is full of words and phrases that seem to obscure as much as they highlight and yet they reveal much. I contend that it is best sung because it is as much a hymn as “Amazing Grace” or any of the other old-time favorites and yet is much, much older and reveals to us the heart of our religion.
The word religion, religio, has a few possible roots. One possibility, of which Cicero was a proponent, was that religio was based on relegere meaning “to go over and over a text.” Another possible root, which Lactantius promoted in the fourth century, is religare — meaning “to bind or be bound.” Think of the word ligament or ligature — things that tie other things together.
The Creed is the articulation of the heart of our religion, and by its careful, and even joyful, recitation and repetition we are bound together with one another and with God. It is a theological and historical ligament that ties even more than it binds. It is, in many ways, a love song, for it is a song of creation, of protection, of guiding, of rescuing, and of being together with one another in an eternal exchange of unending self-offering.
It answered one of the most threatening early heresies — Arianism. The Arian heresy was such a threat that Saint Nicholas (yes, Santa Claus) punched the heretic bishop at the Council of Nicaea in 325 with Emperor Constantine looking on with, one imagines, some degree of exasperation. The heresy purported that Jesus was created by and subordinate to God the Father — a supposition that would have undone much of the revelation and testimony of the early Church and of Christ himself.
So we get the refutation of Arianism in the earliest lines of the Creed — “God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God, begotten not made, of one being with the Father. Through him all things were made …” The Creed was an attempt to figure out how it was that Christians could be together —what made one a Christian? It was not so much a question of belief (though it was that) but of definition — what claims do self-proclaimed Christians make?
Many think that the Creed feels like a litmus test; it is of sorts. Though it is not so much about any individual believer’s ability to say yes or no to any and all of its claims — for any one believer to have all the necessary knowledge, faith, and revelation to affirm any and all of the Creed’s claims with utter assurance at all times and in all places would probably mark her or him as a lunatic or a charlatan. The Creed is the movement of the whole of the Holy Spirit over the whole of the Church through the whole of her history. It is our corporate aspiration and testimony.
Thanks be to God that each and every one of us need not attest to each and every comma it in! We only need have the faith and assurance that we belong to a Church — a Body of the faithful — in which the Holy Spirit has moved and which that same Spirit has inspired to find Truth and beauty where we might find only chaos and confusion. Belief is the work not only of the individual but (and the Creed testifies to this) of the community of faith, which lends us belief when unbelief might swallow us.
The Creed is a litmus test for whole churches — for bodies of faithful people. Are those bodies in accord and coherence with the faithful who looked upon Jesus and upon whom he smiled? Can we testify today to the same faith of the earliest generations of the Church? That is the litmus test — are we in Communion with the Body of the faithful who broke Bread in caverns and catacombs in the dimmest recesses of the Body’s memory — whose memories and testimonies live on in and through us and through the Creed? Can we sing the hymn of love they sang with such passion and faith?
This is what it means to be catholic Christians. It may be helpful to dispense with a bogeyman here — the word Catholic. For many that seems to have connotations of a mystic cultus whose tortured root is in the dank bowels of the Romish perversion of some pure Gospel truth revealed at some point in history. Yet what would we have if not for the continuity of the Church with our earliest days? We would have no Creed, few hymns, and no Scriptures without the Catholic Church. It does us a grave disservice to decide that we are Episcopalians because we are not Catholic (or for that matter because we are not Evangelicals).
The more helpful lens may be one of continuity — we are in continuity with Rome (and the Catholic Church) and with Geneva (and the Reformers) because we have looked to the excesses of both traditions and forged a way that is not divorced from them but builds, by reason, prayer, and hope, upon the fidelity and foundations of generations past. We are bound together by their faith and their striving. This is why the ligaments of the Creed are so vital — because they allow us to stretch as reformed catholics, yet remain in utter fidelity to the witness of the early Church who saw in Jesus not someone to “believe” in but someone with whom they were madly in love — and by whom they were madly loved.
“Let Us Pray for the Whole State of Christ’s Church and the World”
Having said the Creed, we are now to the point of the Prayers of the People (in most of the Eucharistic Prayers). The Book of Common Prayer has two Rites, with Rite I being more traditional language and Rite II being the more modern idiom. We primarily use Rite II at 9:00 and 11:15 a.m. During this season of Advent we are using Prayer D, which is one of the four Eucharistic Prayers that are offered in Rite II in the Prayer Book. Prayer D has the Prayers of the People embedded in the Eucharistic Prayer itself.
[I am going to digress here a bit to share a bit more about Prayer D, simply because we are using it currently and it has this unique feature of the embedded Prayers of the People. Prayer D is the most widely used Eucharistic Prayer in Christianity. It is based on the Liturgy of Saint Basil from the 4th century and is approved for use by the Roman Catholic Church, Anglicans (including the Episcopal Church), many Orthodox communities, as well as the United Methodists and Evangelical Lutherans. It is a powerful statement about the unity of the Church Universal and it is a witness to Christ’s prayer that “they all may be one,” so we are using it in this holy season when the whole Church celebrates the coming of our common hope. The Prayers of the People are embedded in the body of the Eucharistic Prayer which the priest reads — in part to maintain the integrity of the fourth century rite.]
Back to the Prayers of the People. The whole of the Eucharist is an act of adoration and thanksgiving in which we bring before God all that we are and all for which we hope — this includes our petitions and deep needs. So we offer to a wounded Christ all that which afflicts us and those we love, and we plead for Christ the Healer to show mercy upon us and to give us the strength and courage both to endure suffering and to be healers ourselves.
The Prayers of the People can be freshly written each week or periodically — and when this is done with intentionality and theological attention this can be a beautiful work of grace and love. The Prayer Book recommends that intercessions are always offered for the following:
The Universal Church, its members, and its mission
The Nation and all in authority
The welfare of the world
The concerns of the local community
Those who suffer and those in any trouble
The departed (with commemoration of a saint when appropriate)
We are invited to adapt these for local use and needs when appropriate, and the current custom here is that one of the six forms that begin on page 383 of the Prayer Book is used. We edit them for local concerns, and many of you will have noted the insertions of the names of victims of gun violence in Pima County as an example of such permitted and encouraged adaptation. Perhaps the most controversial of the Prayer Book’s specific intentions are those for the departed — this was a source of deep and complex historical and theological controversy which we will review at another point.
Form I of the Prayers of the People is based on liturgies from the earliest days of the Church — the liturgies of Saint Basil and Saint Chrysostom. Form II is new and was written for the 1979 BCP by Fr. Alfred Shands — it is concise and offers much needed space for individual petitions to be offered silently or aloud. Form III was based on a 1966 form that was introduced in New Zealand and also offers space for individual petitions.
Form IV is the form we currently use most regularly. It was written for trial use in 1970 and adapted from an English set written in 1967 and revised for the South African Church in 1975. It is a blend of pieces of English and South African elements and represents the breadth of global Anglicanism.
Form V, like Form I, is a modern adaptation of the Eastern litany form. It contains a series of two-part petitions — the petition itself followed by a statement providing insight into the petition. Form V also includes several optional petitions for forgiveness that may be omitted when a fuller Confession is used. Form VI is based on a litany written for the 1969 General Convention (the Episcopal Church churchwide gathering of delegates which occurs every three years to decide on legislation of all sorts). It is a rich piece which draws from several points of Scripture, from the Psalms to First and Second Chronicles, Isaiah, 2 Samuel, and Titus. It concludes with an abbreviated Confession.
We enter the Christmas season celebrating the inbreaking of God into a manger and celebrating the very real birth of God With Us. If that scene teaches anything, then it teaches that God embraces us even in the midst of very human realities — because of those very human realities.
Our prayers are always answered. This is a true saying. Our prayers are always answered. They may not be answered in the way we understand, the way we hope, or the way we expect. A prosaic example might be that team prayer before a football game. When a team prays for victory and receives defeat, there is grace abounding in defeat. Most of our greatest lessons come not from wins but from losses — and prayers were answered. To draw out the ball game analogy a bit more — the point is not that God cares about a ball game, but that the ball game is one part of God. The ball, the field, the players, the sweat, the dreams, the fans, the stadium, the city, and more are all caught up in the care and attention of God. The more we are able to acknowledge the presence of God in all that we undertake, the more profoundly we can carry that presence to those who need it most and ask for the grace to live life with prayer and praise always on our lips and in our hearts.
Our victories and defeats, our gifts and our weakness, our hopes and our fears are all bound up in the love of God. So pray. Pray for yourself and for those you love. Pray for grace and pray for patience. Pray for the silliness of a ball game and with the sobriety of a saint. Pray for the departed and the destitute. Pray for the ragged and the rich. Pray through sobs and sighs and sins. Pray and pray some more and know that the prayers of the people are being heard and answered in ways beyond our asking or imagining.
“Ye Who Do Truly and Earnestly Repent …”
Having completed the Prayers of the People, we now come to the Confession. The Confession of the whole community (rather than private Confessions) was new to the liturgies of the Reformation. In the early Church, Christians acknowledged their own faults by focusing on giving thanks for the mercy of God. The emergence of individual Confession later in the Middle Ages seems to have grown out of the custom of a priest making a Confession to an assistant before saying mass and then hearing the server’s Confession and proclaiming forgiveness before coming to the Altar (our custom of saying the Collect for Purity at the beginning of the liturgy is an outgrowth of this custom).
First John reads, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us; but if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
The opening line of the individual rite of Confession on page 447 of the Prayer Book reads “The Lord be in your heart and upon your lips that you may truly and humbly confess your sins: In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” I find it heartening that those words, that blessing, is mirrored in the Liturgy. When the deacon brings the Gospel Book to the priest for a blessing, the priest says “The Lord be in your heart and upon your lips that you may worthily proclaim his Holy Gospel.”
There is a vital link between being able to honestly confess our sins, faults, and failures in the sight of God and being equipped to proclaim the Gospel. It is right that these lines are so similar. Both proclaiming the Gospel and confessing our sins are works that demand of us an obedience to the Lord and the laying aside of our pride and vanity.
It is impossible to truly proclaim Good News without knowing ourselves forgiven by Divine Mercy. Confessing and Proclaiming both find their root in the heart of the Christian faith — our acknowledgment of the glory of God and the vital presence of his gracious love.
Confession and Proclamation are at the heart of the Christian message: we are truly sorry, we humbly repent, we are forgiven by the Lord who came into the world to save sinners, and we can’t help but proclaim that grace boldly — full of thanks and praise for God’s unfailing mercy. Our whole ministry as Christians is bound to the reality of God’s forgiveness — to the washing away of our sins in the flowing waters of baptism. Confession and repentance make proclamation truly possible.
Theologian John Macquarrie writes, “Sin, or rather the conviction of sin, is the presupposition of baptism. We have a sense that all is not well with us.” We are washed from sin in Baptism — yet, we also recognize the reality of sin in our lived Christian experience. How do we hold onto that centered place in which we find ourselves at one with Christ, literally donning Christ at the font?
Confession and repentance are means by which we can keep our Baptism in front of us as we walk. They are the recognition that sin, washed from us at Baptism, still enters the Christian life and dims the awareness of the fullness of Christ’s indwelling. Repentance makes the unobservable and the easily avoided more concrete so that we also feel and know the reality of the grace of Baptism.
Sometimes penitence takes on a dismal quality. It is never fun work, but too often certain people seem to revel in an unnatural focus on sin and the self-flagellating of confession. The problem with this approach is that it is no less self-centered than a wholesale and ultimately empty affirmation of the narcissist. God’s mercy is wider than we can ask or imagine.
Confession is a call to honesty. To honestly see our faults. To honestly ask for forgiveness. And to honestly believe that our sins are put away — that we are forgiven, that we may walk in newness of life. Anglicanism, at its best, is a tension of commendable impulses. We balance, healthily, the joy of Easter with the pain of Good Friday. We are not an Easter people alone nor are we a Church that grinds the penitent down with the guilt of Good Friday.
We know that the fullness of the Christian life is revealed in all of these moments and more. Easter makes little difference without Ash Wednesday. Without Ash Wednesday’s reminders of our mortality and failings, the joy and redemption of the Resurrection make little real sense (not that they ever truly do, which is part of the profound blessing).
Confessing our sins is not about us — it is about the other. It is about God. Confession is the willingness to accept the forgiveness and mercy of God, so that we may love God with all of our being, and grow in love and charity toward our neighbor. Not because it is simply a kind thing to do but because we are called to mirror the love of God — to strive to be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect, and to know we will fail and be called to confess and to strive anew.
Confession is a Sacrament of the future — restoring hope rather than simply punishing transgression. It is not a Sacrament of judgment alone but of restored souls and renewed relationships. It reminds us of our whole saved being whose nature and hope is found in the One identity we all share as the Body of Christ. Confession only makes sense in light of our many, many relationships, as our souls and bodies are drawn ever closer to God and ever closer to our Baptized self — so that we can be a sign of God’s forgiveness to others as well — so that we may worthily proclaim His Holy Gospel as others perceive within us the fruits of Christ’s redemption.
Passing All Understanding: The Peace of God
Having had a bit of a break for the Annual Meeting and the like, we now find ourselves back in the midst of our liturgical exploration – and just at a hinge moment in the liturgy – the Peace.
The Peace seems to have its roots in thirteen passages of Scripture that offer evidence for the exchanging of a “kiss of peace” between Christ’s followers. Some Episcopalians squirm at the notion of kissing – peaceful or not. Other, of a perhaps more continental bent, may see a peck or two as a perfectly appropriate way to welcome old friends or neighbors.
The first liturgical mentions of this kiss of peace are found in the earliest Baptismal rites. The Peace would not be exchanged with the uninitiated – the unbaptized. They were welcomed warmly, treated kindly, and participated in other aspects of the community’s life, but this moment of the kiss of peace was exchanged between Baptized brothers and sisters of the household of faith – of the Church. In early liturgies the Peace functioned as a hinge between the Liturgy of the Word (the hearing and response to Scripture) and the Liturgy of the Table (the consecration of bread and wine into Bread and Wine, Body and Blood). It was a point at which the unbaptized went outside the sanctuary and the doors were closed as the baptized proceeded to the Table and those preparing for Baptism at a later date prepared a hearty meal for all to share after Communion. Later, in the fifth century, the rites of Rome had the Peace situated at the time of the breaking of the Bread – as an immediate preparation to receive Communion.
The Peace has been exchanged in ways ranging from the happy-go-lucky way it is often done now to much more staid and hierarchical exchanges that began with the celebrant kissing the Altar, the Paten (plate upon which the Bread sits), the Consecrated Bread itself, or a paxboard (a wooden icon of a saint, or, more often, the Crucifixion) and the Peace would kind of ripple out from that kissing of those various Presences or images of Christ.
In our grip-and-grin culture, such a formal Peace might seem a little hard to fathom – but perhaps we can recover a bit of its intentionality by remembering that we “kiss” at that liturgical moment as a way of encountering the Christ in one another. We do not exchange the Peace as “Bob” and “Mandy,” but as Christ-bearers – as images and even Presences of Christ in our own selves, souls, and bodies.
The emphasis at this point, after the Confession, is that we are reconciled as the household of the faithful – we are participating in the ministry of Reconciliation that is Jesus’ at that moment as we find ourselves exchanging, wishing, and welcoming Peace with those with whom we may have had some disagreement, or with those whom we have hurt, or with those who have hurt us. Yet the Peace symbolizes nothing – it is a not a symbol of Christian chumminess – it is an embodied response to forgiving and being forgiven. It is a concrete way for the faithful to respond to God’s own mercy by offering mercy and receiving it from one another.
If that seems too “out there,” then consider today’s Gospel (Matthew 5:21-37), which is unambiguous about the ways Christ-followers are to be in relationship:
But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.
The Peace was, for long centuries, absent from the liturgy altogether. It had faded to a ritual exchange between the Celebrant and the Deacons – and even then only on major occasions. The Protestant Reformers were having none of all this kissing in church (think of the zealous and ardent affections of your textbook Puritan), and so the Peace was consigned to a sort of ecclesiastical rummage bin for some time. It held on for a little while in the early Church of England as we (as would become a habit) sought the middle way and retained the text in the 1549 Prayer Book that would have accompanied an exchange of the Peace while not really having the exchange itself – which seems perfectly Anglican in some ways.
Interestingly, its revival for Anglicans began in the Church of South India – and I would ask that you ponder the dire consequences of the caste system in India and what a radical act of revolutionary commitment it is to ask that people exchange a kiss of Peace across those stark social divisions. You might imagine (and may have been part of) a church in Oxford, Mississippi or Birmingham, Alabama while being asked to exchange a kiss across the heated divides of 1964 – an act almost as radical as a common Communion cup being passed and shared with love and trust.
Most liturgical churches recovered the Peace over the second half of the twentieth century. The majority of Episcopal churches now exchange the Peace at the point just after Confession – as we do here – though there is license in the Prayer Book (p. 407) to do so at the place customary in the medieval Roman rite, just at the Breaking of the Bread.
The exchanging of the Peace is a moment at which the members of the Church choose to be the Church rather than another social gathering of like-minded people. We can live differently at this point – choosing compassion, kindness, and unity of heart and mind in Christ – or we can go home. Literally – we are not invited to union with Christ at the Altar if we cannot find it with one another as fellow bearers of the image of Christ (if you don’t believe me, then please refer again to the “hell of fire” that is referenced by Jesus in the Gospel earlier in this piece).
Christian community is like no other because its standards are like no other, as its source is like no other. This is where our habits of gossip, anger, pettiness, bullying, passive-aggression, and more can trip us up because we are told that not only are these unpleasant for our community – they are deadly to our own salvation. Thank goodness that the Lord is full of compassion and mercy – and so should each of us be as his disciples.