The Gospel of John in its opening chapter quite clearly and irrevocably claims that Jesus is the Word made flesh and that he has come to be our salvation. Despite all the many things that the different parts of the Church have argued about across the centuries, this fact has never been called into doubt since the establishment of the Nicene – Constantinopolitan Creed. Thus, you will gather that, that is not what this article is about. What this article is about though, is how we receive the word made flesh and then keep it alive both within ourselves and proclaim it in the lives of those who we meet in our own daily lives.
The Word made flesh is God’s ultimate act of love for us, proven by His death and resurrection being salvation for all who turn to him. Just as Jesus became flesh and blood and needed nourishment to survive so our love of him equally needs to be nourished and worked at. It is nourished both inwardly and outwardly when we come together to hear and share the Word of God as revealed in scripture. This together with an exposition of the word (the Sermon or address) forms a basic part of any service of Morning or Evening Prayer and is, of course, a major part of the Mass. Of equal importance in the Mass though, is the sharing in the Body and Blood of Christ as outwardly seen in the form of bread and wine.
St. Augustine put it rather beautifully when he wrote
“We are told to sing to the Lord a new song. A new man knows a new song. A song is a thing of joy and, if we think carefully about it, a thing of love. So the man who has learned to love a new life has learned to sing a new song. Therefore we need to be told the nature of this new life, for the sake of the new song. For a new man, a new song and the New Testament all belong to the same kingdom.”
This is one reason why it is not possible to be a Christian in isolation, because you receive no spiritual nourishment on your own, you may read the scripture but miss the opportunity to hear it expounded and informed on
Prior to the establishment of the Church of England and indeed for members of the Roman Catholic Church prior to the 2nd Vatican Council in the 1960’s, the Mass was not only said in Latin, but at such a quiet level of voice as to be barely audible to all but the servers standing by the altar. Given also that the priest had his back to the people (Eastward facing), the only way that many in the congregation knew where the Eucharistic prayer had got to was when the Sanctus Bells were rung or the thurible was swung as the priest genuflected and offered the elements
The use of English and in many places the introduction of what was known as ‘North End Working’ meant that in the newly created C of E the people were suddenly involved in the Eucharistic prayer and were able to follow it directly. This was just as well since very soon afterwards bells, candles and incense were banned as being too (Roman) Catholic by the Articles of Religion as contained in the newly created prayer book. After several variations in 1662 (350 years ago this year) the Book of Common Prayer, as we now basically know it, was published and the pattern of Worship that was used throughout the C of E until the late 1920’s established..
As I have observed before the Book of Common Prayer has been updated and revised on many occasions, but is still the same in its structure and in its services. The duties of both the Minister and the Faithful are clearly laid down with how they are expected to obey and treat both the word of God and the Body and Blood of Christ.
The instruction to the Clergy is that the service shall be said in a clear, audible voice and in a language that the people understand. For reasons that Fr. Mervyn may know, but I have never clearly understood, this seems to have been taken as meaning that
the service should always be said in a flat monotone voice without a hint of variation or emotion. I have had it suggested to me that the idea behind this was that the people should concentrate on the words rather than in the way they were said. However, I can think of nothing that would turn people’s minds away from the service than constantly having to listen to a monotone voice droning on and on.
The whole purpose of a well delivered liturgy as rediscovered by those who brought the catholic style of liturgy back into the C of E in the 1840’s and onwards is to encourage people to feel themselves uplifted by being fully engaged with the service (generally this is rediscovery is referred to as the Oxford Movement). One of my theology lecturers at Oxford used to describe the High Mass as a piece of street theatre that only worked if the audience joined in.
When challenged he described it something like this – Anybody can come and watch what’s going on, if they want to put some coins in the hat (or plate) they can, but it is optional. The central characters (priest servers etc.) wear elaborate costumes that you would not see anywhere else – the lacy cottas or long flowing surplices, the elaborately decorated and colourful chasubles of the priest(s) and the dalmatics of the deacon. Special effects stimulate the other senses apart from the eyes; there is the smell of the incense, the sound of the bells and of the words being spoken, including, of course, audience participation in the songs and the script. The feel of the building and its ornaments and decoration, as well as the special service books and, of course, the feel and taste of the sacramental elements for those who are permitted to join in, stimulate the remaining senses and help the people to forget their own lives for a time.. There might also be the feel of the water if the Asperges takes place as part of the service or if there is a baptism.
In short good liturgy should affect every one of the senses of the participants, just as good theatre should engage you at every level if it is to transport you into the world that the playwright intended. In the world before TV when most people had either worked on the land or (after the industrial revolution) in the gloom of the factory such liturgy must have seemed like being allowed a glimpse of heaven itself!
Today, in our style of worship the same still holds true albeit not quite so strongly. The advent of the cinema and radio followed by television and especially colour TV, together with a greatly increased amount of leisure time means that people are not so easily engaged as once they were for they have many more things in their lives to stimulate them and engage them.
We could probably chase after them with a couple of large screen displays showing the words to the hymns and some fancy graphic or cartoon illustrations each week, maybe we could add some fancy lighting effects as well, but I would venture to suggest that that would take us away from what should be the focus of the service, namely the real presence of Christ present for us in the sacrament.
Fr. Mervyn and I could probably use a few more props in our sermons, but actually when you remember the props for longer than the words that were preached, then you’ve rather missed the point that we were trying to make and we have failed in our duty to proclaim the word in your life.
It is true that those in other parts of the church take different views and for those of a mainly evangelical persuasion the exposition of the word via a longer and more intricate sermon that possibly encourages its listeners to refer to the Bible passage and even comment on it, is of much greater importance. But however, the word is proclaimed and the liturgy celebrated the important thing must surely be that it challenges everyone who is present to try to examine themselves and to live by the precepts that are taught.
You may not always know the hymns or agree with what is said, you may not always pay as much attention as you think you ought too, after all we all have days when we are not at our best and you cannot always please everyone all of the time. But, if when you leave the church you feel grateful for Christ in your life and maybe even a little uplifted then the Word is alive in you and you have a duty to share that Word with the world and to keep it alive.
May God be with you
From the St. George’s Day Dinner
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, TOM