When we gather together as God’s people, our common act is called liturgy. The word liturgy is taken from the Greek, and like many of the terms we think of as exclusively religious, it originally had a secular meaning. It means “public service,” and in ancient times, when a ruler or a prominent person would build a bridge or sponsor a series of athletic contests, he might describe it as his liturgy—as an act he had done for the benefit of all.
Much of our practice of the Christian life is conducted in private. In our homes, hidden from the world, we pray for the world’s needs and the good of our souls. At our desks, we read the Bible and decide how we will use our wealth to care for the poor and support the work of the Gospel. Our faith comes to life when we insist on honesty in the staff meeting at work, or tell our children Bible stories at the bedside, or talk to a friend in distress about how God has helped us through a hard time.
But this work, our common service, is public, for the benefit of all. The doors are open to everyone. It is conducted in a large and prominent building, and we fill it with sound, color and movement. Pastors sometimes call what happens on Sunday morning our “shop window,” the place where our deepest convictions are on display to those who won’t know anything else about our faith and our particular community. As Jesus reminds us in today’s Gospel, it should flow from our love and care for each other, as people reconciled to God and to one another.
Like all public, common actions that are meant to endure, our liturgy has a fairly fixed structure of words and actions—what we technically call ritual and ceremonial. The words and actions we use week by week have been shaped over many centuries, each phrase debated and tested, and handed on after they have been proven spiritually useful.
Some of our rites and ceremonies go back to Christ himself, who clearly instituted an act of worship for His disciples to continue on the night before His death. We obey His command and use His words every time we gather to break the bread and bless the cup. Some are even older, derived from the practice of the Jewish synagogue. Ancient court ceremonies have formed our worship and the decrees of church councils, devotional practices from medieval monasteries and modern missionary experiments.
Many of our core texts for the liturgy come from the fourth and fifth centuries, when Christianity became legal and the words used for worship didn’t need to be kept secret any longer. The Reformation of the sixteenth century, with its focus on God’s free grace for sinners decisively shaped the texts of the first Anglican liturgy, the Book of Common Prayer of 1549, which is the direct ancestor of the particular rite we use here at Saint Francis. Our way of worshiping was also reworked in important ways in the 1970’s to reflect a deeper focus on role of lay people as leaders empowered by God and on the church’s call to social engagement.
But really, the texts and actions we use each week have been gathered from every corner of the church’s life and witness. One form of the Prayers of the People we often use, for example, are pretty closely translated from some written in southern Turkey in the fourth century, while the exchange of peace that follows them debuted in India in the 1950’s.
It can sometimes be a bit overwhelming, I admit, all these beautiful words and complicated gestures, the theological ideas and the melody lines. You aren’t really meant to take it all in, every time, and you should expect to be a bit confused the first several times you participate in it. Of course, that’s also how it is the first time you go to a baseball game, an opera or to a court proceeding. Public events with a heritage, that gesture towards important things, they take time and practice to fully understand.
In part, the liturgy is difficult to us because we’re not used to thinking in symbolic terms, holding together concepts and images that are also quite different from each other. Symbols are all over the place in the liturgy, rich symbols like fire, water and bread that are supposed to suggest several different layers of meaning at the same time. We sometimes use technical terms that can’t be quickly explained, and reference images drawn from many different parts of the Bible. When a phrase seems a bit awkward, it’s usually because it’s taken directly from the Bible, like about three-quarters of the things we say together each week.
The richness and complexity of our words and actions are meant to incite the imagination, to spur you to prayer and meditation—to enchant as well as to inform. But some instruction can also be helpful from time to time, a few pointers about what to notice and how to use it fruitfully. Think of what we will do today and next week as a public service announcement for the sake of the public service, instruction meant to help you participate more fully and actively in this common work.
There are many forms of Christian liturgy, but we are gathered today to keep the most important one, the Holy Eucharist, that service that a church council a few decades ago memorably termed “the source and summit of the Christian life.” We sometimes call the Eucharist, “The Lord’s own service,” because it was commanded by Jesus Christ our Lord during His earthly life, and because it makes Him present for us in a uniquely intimate and powerful way. The rich symbols of this liturgy reveal Him.
Particularly, they point to Jesus in His saving death and resurrection, and in His triumphant reign in heaven. So many of the things we say and do gesture back toward the cross, or ahead and beyond, to the eternal life we will share with His saints and angels at the last day. When we gather here to celebrate the Eucharist, we are reaching beyond this place and time, and we are bound with the faithful in every generation, here on earth and there in glory. There is truly no roof on this building.
And yet, we do worship in a building, which isn’t a bad place to begin. This particular building, like most Christian churches across time, is an adapted version of an ancient Roman basilica, with a long narrow place for the people to sit, the nave, and an elevated platform at the front, the sanctuary. The basilica was originally a secular building, and its name means the hall of a king. It was a place for the conduct of the king’s business, and that’s what we are about, the business of the true and eternal king, our Lord Jesus Christ.
The church building’s central symbol is the Altar, which is our king’s throne. It is surmounted by two candles, symbols of His human and divine natures, shining forth for us like lights in the darkness. Over it is placed the Cross, which points us to His life offered up for us, the instrument of death made the source of eternal life for the whole world.
Our worship space is also oriented so that like Christians from the very beginning, we pray facing East, the direction of the rising sun. This shows us that He who died for us has promised to return, destroying all darkness in that Day that never ends.
We gather as God’s people, the ordained and the lay. It was Christ’s purpose from the beginning that some of His disciples be set apart to lead the others, to speak in His Name. In the way we worship today more parts of the service are read by you—the members of the congregation—than was common in earlier centuries. But still, the central words and actions of the liturgy are spoken by a bishop, priest or deacon. That has very little to do with talent or education, and everything to do with the grace invoked over me, and the trust placed in me by the wider church, passed down from the apostles even to us now.
The way I dress is intended to express that grace and trust. When we celebrate the Eucharist I wear the ordinary street dress of a fourth century gentleman. The white alb is a reminder of the grace of Baptism, and the rope cincture points to Christ who was bound for us. I wear a stole, the yoke of Christ around my neck, as a reminder of my responsibility to serve Him as I serve you. All is covered by the chasuble, which points to the love of God, which should cover and adorn all my actions. This particular form of costume was preserved in part because of its dignity and in part because it recalled an age of brave martyrs and brilliant teachers, who left an indelible mark on the faith we continue to practice.
The liturgy deals in eternal realities, but it also unfolds in time. This day, Sunday, is the Lord’s Day, the day He spoke the world into being and rose from the dead, the day the Holy Spirit was poured out on Pentecost, so that all the world could hear His Gospel.
This particular Sunday also falls in cycle of weeks determined by the dates of our principal feasts: Easter, Christmas and Pentecost. It’s official name today is the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, and the focus of this season is on the way in which Christ is revealed to the world.
The older name for this Sunday, though, is Septuagesima, the Latin word for seventy, and it reminds us that we are about seventy days away from Easter. Septuagesima begins a short season whose readings and prayers look ahead to Lent’s focus on repentance by reminding us of the full measure of the duties God has set before us. Choose life that comes through keeping God’s commandments, Moses urges us. Show your faith in your words, your desires, your actions to one another, Jesus insists. You are His people, united in this, your public service. Let the world see His will and purpose in all you do.